Historicizing Inflation & Price Controls with Andrew Elrod

Andrew Elrod joins Money on the Left to discuss the political economy of inflation and price controls, past and present. Elrod holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is presently Research Specialist at United Teachers Los Angeles, a 36,000-member labor union. In our conversation, Elrod overturns one of the most common understandings of a central plot point in our collective memory of the 1970s, and which continues to shape dramatic engagement with the problem of “inflation” today: the notion that stagflation was both a consequence of factors exogenous to politics and the catalyst for austerity in the United States and across the world. In doing so, Elrod locates human agency—not autonomous “price signals” or exogenous shocks—as the most formidable instrument for dealing with post-Covid inflation.

Link to Elrod’s recent essay for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth titled ‘Austerity policies in the United States caused ‘stagflation’ in the 1970s and would do so again today’: 
https://equitablegrowth.org/austerity-policies-in-the-united-states-caused-stagflation-in-the-1970s-and-would-do-so-again-today/

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Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Maxximilian Seijo: Andrew Elrod, welcome to Money on the Left.

Andrew Elrod: Hi, great to be here.

Maxximilian Seijo: So for our listeners who probably don’t know that much about you yet, could you spare a moment to talk a little bit about your personal and professional background?

Andrew Elrod: For sure. I was a teaching assistant and graduate student in the Department of History at UC Santa Barbara for six years. I just finished this summer and filed a dissertation on the history of wage and price controls in the United States from World War II to The Volcker Shock, so sort of in the middle half of the 20th century. I do some public writing related to that, but I’ve also recently taken up a position in the research department of a labor union in Los Angeles–the city where I live–so I’m kind of in a moment of transition. But I like to think there’s a thread keeping my interests between the two jobs together.

Maxximilian Seijo: Cool. For listeners who might know where I am institutionally, you’ll notice that Andrew and I did or are doing our PhDs at the same institution. So there are some heterodox spaces around, perhaps, where you don’t expect them to be. Part of the reason why we wanted to bring you on the show, and why we wanted to have this conversation via Money on the Left, is that inflation and prices are all themes and buzzwords that are really present for us today. We live in an era of 7% CPI measured inflation. We can problematize that measure if we want to, but in relation to this, you recently published a piece with Equitable Growth titled, “Austerity policies in the United States caused ‘stagflation’ in the 1970s and would do so again today.” To begin unpacking this piece, why don’t you start by discussing what the conventional wisdom for dealing with inflation, or this so-called economic problem, is today. Mainly, maybe you can touch on some themes of excess demand, or the demand driven story about inflation. What is it? Who is espousing this story and why? Why do most mainstream economists believe that to be the narrative?

Andrew Elrod: Sure. Well, just to begin with, you opened by saying we’re in an era of 7% inflation–it’s only been a year. Between 1968 and 1979 or so, the annual inflation rate was up between 5 and 12%. That’s twelve years. And that’s remembered as a bad time in history, but we’ve yet to see exactly what’s going to happen today. We are about a year into a new inflationary environment, but whether it’s going to be an era, I think, is kind of open at the moment. But, of course, that’s why it’s in the news. Everybody’s afraid of that. So to answer your question about the conventional wisdom, so to speak, around macroeconomic management, the historical answer is that, since the Depression, but especially since World War II, global economic thought has centered around the ideas that came to be associated with John Maynard Keynes–that there is such a thing as a full employment level of spending, or a full employment level of demand, and that that demand can be manipulated by national governments. This is the set of underlying assumptions that the whole macroeconomics discipline was founded on.

Before the 30s and 40s, there was no such thing as macroeconomics. There was classical political economy. There was a neoclassical school at the end of the 19th century, but macroeconomics is really a 20th century development. And it’s related to a variety of things, including the Depression itself. The intellectual problem of how societies could pull themselves out of the Great Depression was certainly one impetus. Then, there are also developments in statistics. I think Adam Tooze is probably one of the best examples of a historian who’s shown that the concepts themselves, such as the level of demand, depend on governments setting up accounting systems to measure things ‘out there,’ like expenditures by households and firms, and integrating them into a comprehensive system of accounts that you can use as an instrument for doing things that we now call macroeconomic analysis. So the conventional wisdom is a simplified Keynesianism, or what some people might have once called, ‘bastard Keynesianism,’ which holds that raising or lowering the level of demand in a national economy depends on fiscal and monetary policy.

The division between those two things is itself, I argue, a historically specific development, particularly in the United States during the time of McCarthy. But the idea is that the level of spending, the amount of money people have to realize their wants, is something that the government can control through taxes and its own budget, or taxing and spending, which is fiscal policy. The credit system, or central bank policies–often, for much of the 20th century, regulations over how much the private member banks under the government’s central bank, or who have to borrow from the government’s central bank, regulations about what they can do, what they can lend, how much they can lend, for what purposes they can lend, that credit realm is the other traditional instrument–is monetary policy.

So today, a lot of the debate departs from the point of view that there’s too much demand, or people have too much money in their pockets and businesses are investing too much. This is a problem because prices are rising. Demand is above supply causing prices to rise. And the solution to this problem of wanting prices to stop rising is to take money out of people’s pockets to reduce demand, either through reducing spending, and you see this very heavily in an opportunistic and kind of right wing ideological way around the expanded Coronavirus emergency relief measures, like the enhanced unemployment benefits. Joe Manchin, for example, as a Democrat does this and gets in front of the Senate and says social spending is causing inflation, or giving low income, working class people money is causing them to spend more than the American economy is capable of supplying them. That’s causing prices to go up so we can’t have any more of that. And that would be a fiscal contraction.

Interestingly enough, no one is talking today about raising taxes, although that would also be a kind of orthodox fiscal contraction, or anti-inflationary, tool. But then, the other thing that’s really in the news, and in part because it doesn’t rely on Congress, is contractionary monetary policy with the intention of restricting demand. The idea there is that, if you can raise interest rates, then investors are going to, well, first of all, borrow less to make real investments. There’s going to be fewer apartment buildings going up, fewer new warehouses going up, and the cost of credit, which is a crucial component of running a business, is going to go up. So you can slow investment down that way. And the understated, or sometimes unstated, but universally acknowledged, effect of that is to increase unemployment. So part of the reason that I think that writers say there’s such a controversy right now over the idea of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, is because the effect is going to be to throw people out of work. And there’s still a lot of people who don’t have jobs. So that’s kind of a survey of the inflation dilemma right now as I’m sure you and your listeners know.

Maxximilian Seijo: In what you’re describing, perhaps we could boil it down into a phrase of the economy ‘overheating,’ right, in that conceptual sense. I think you do a great job of looking backward towards the intellectual and conceptual dynamics that produce the composite environment for coming to that conclusion. As you say in your piece that I referenced with the last question, this conventional narrative is itself preoccupied with a subset of an era, of the time in which you describe macroeconomic economics as coming into fruition or to the fore, which is the 1970s. So as we investigate this conventional wisdom, can you tell us a little bit about what the policy debates of the 1970s were, and particularly, as they related to things like inflation or pricing? On the way, the listeners, I think, would enjoy hearing a little bit about the Marilyn Monroe lyric that references JFK’s particular pricing management schemes?

Andrew Elrod: Yeah, the 1970s are a very interesting time, and really, I think, the time when what we think of today as the popular handbook for how to handle inflation was written, because there was a big twelve year debate about what to do. Before 1979, there was a much more sophisticated understanding of what caused prices to rise, or more generally, price determination. It had grown out of the 1920s, sort of the pre-macro era, when price theory itself was not monopolized by ideologues, but instead was an open subfield where growth of the large vertically integrated manufacturing corporation, branded products, and a world in which price competition appeared increasingly to be vanishing from consumer life had to be reckoned with. So there’s this intellectual tradition that dates back to before the war, but it survives after the war. In the mainstream of economic thought, and certainly applied economic thought, where the administrators and politicians’ staff who make the laws that govern the economy and enforce them within that mainstream occupy, there was an understanding that prices in particular markets rose for particular reasons.

There was the very recent memory of World War II, and again during the Korean War, of economy-wide wage and price controls and periods of emergency when Congress granted the president the powers to impose ceilings, dollars and cents ceilings, on particular commodities. Also, surviving after the Korean War, was a knowledge of the government itself as an actor in the marketplace, a large procurer, a huge customer, and a customer whose own purchasing decisions could have an effect in shaping markets. So this is the world in which John F. Kennedy is elected, assassinated, LBJ takes over, and then the Vietnam war happens. This is the world that we think of as the 1970s beginning. So by the time you get to the middle of the 1960s, the beginning of the escalation of the US occupation of South Vietnam, and the bombings of the Vietnam War, there is a fairly elaborate and sophisticated understanding of how to manage the economy. It’s very different from today where salaried pundits will write about the importance of reducing demand and the worries of an ‘overheating’ economy. That phrase itself ‘overheating’ became popularized during the Vietnam War.

Now, just to answer your specific question about Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, and everything else, the Kennedy administration enters office during a recession. There is a long recessionary period. Technically, it’s two business cycles, from 1957 to 1961, in which the major employment centers have hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers. The auto industry in Detroit in the late 1950s was a hard place, because if you’re an auto worker, you can’t get enough work for the whole year. There was a sustained stagnation in American manufacturing at the end of the 1950s. So this is the environment in which John F. Kennedy runs his notable campaign slogan, “Get America Moving Again.” So he runs on this program of growth. We’re gonna grow the American economy, we’re going to put people to work, we’re going to build factories, we’re going to build houses, and we’re gonna build missiles–it’s a high Cold War period. But the problem with that is that, during both the World War II mobilization, the great thing that finally pulled the country out of the Depression, and during the Korean War, which was itself also a massive expansion of industrial capacity, there had been inflation.

So Kennedy comes into office with this problem of promising growth, but not wanting to cause inflation to happen. The solution that his advisors come to is what are called wage and price guidelines, which is a loose set of non-binding, voluntary guidelines for companies and workers, particularly labor unions, to use in negotiating wages and prices. For the biggest companies, they don’t have to negotiate with anyone; they just set their prices. But it was a set of guidelines for corporate managers and union leaders to consult in making the decisions that govern economic life. So the administration finds itself in a strange, hostile environment with big business, because voluntary price guidelines, as much as the administration had bent over backwards to warn everyone that they’re not going to assuage fears, that they’re not going to impose price controls–they have voluntary guidelines–as much as they do that, the organized businesses in America and the business press says this is de facto price controls. Kennedy is a crypto-communist. Only loony people would say that back then, but the reaction was very hostile.

In fact, by 1962, US steel, which had been the biggest corporation in America, made a point of publicly violating the price guidelines. The company had been meeting with the White House regularly. There had been big labor negotiations in 1961. Labor negotiations are traditionally a time for large employers to raise prices so they can have precautionary funds to pay any wage increase they’re forced to pay. Throughout this period, Roger Blough, the chairman of US Steel, had never indicated that he was going to violate the price guidelines. But in the spring of 1962, after labor negotiations were done, he came to the White House with a memo that said, “These are our new price schedules.” And it’s immediately clear what’s going on for the JFK administration. The President explodes and then there’s an emergency weekend, a three-four day emergency where the Department of Defense and the President’s advisors hold these press conferences saying this is un-American and unpatriotic.

There is a famous anecdote, which if you read any history of the Kennedy administration, this is when the President says, “My father always told me that all businessmen are sons of bitches.” That’s actually printed in Fortune or one of the business magazines. The result is that US Steel rescinds the price increase. They enforce the guidelines. It’s very difficult because they can’t just go to the court. It’s not a law. But what they do is they say they’ll issue a preferred contract, a procurement contract, for steel products at a lower price. I think Kaiser steel, the West Coast steel company, takes it and now business is going on at the lower price. And US Steel, if they don’t want to lose market share, then they’re going to have to meet that. So they rescind the price increase and that becomes a legendary moment of the early Kennedy administration. And it sets up the later 1960s in a really interesting way, where you can see why businessmen, especially anti-communist businessmen, themselves come to oppose Johnson and see the Democratic Party, which had been their instrument, as somehow betraying them. It sets up the greater rightward shift in American political culture.

But, because that was such a high profile scandal, at Kennedy’s birthday in May, they have, famously, Marilyn Monroe come out on stage and do a number in a sequined dress. And it’s very glamorous, but the lyrics to the song she sings are…

Marilyn Monroe:

Happy birthday to you,

Happy birthday to you,

Happy birthday, Mr. President,

Happy birthday to you.

Thank you, Mr. President,

For all the things you’ve done,

The battles that you’ve won,

The way you deal with US Steel,

And our problems by the ton.

We thank you so much.

Andrew Elrod: “Happy Birthday, Mr. President, for all the things you’ve done, the battles that you’ve won, the way you deal with US Steel, and our problems by the ton. We thank you so much.” What is that about? It’s about the fact that the President was willing to call one of the biggest businessmen in the country to the White House and denounce him for profiteering. And that was celebrated. Everybody remembers Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” but nobody remembers what it’s about. So that’s that anecdote.

Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, that’s such a fascinating story. It makes me think of so many different things and how it reverberates into what we can think about as politically possible relation to pricing in general. Maybe we can come back to that, but I want to start to dig in a little bit. Coming out of that particular moment, there’s a shift in the way that pricing is dealt with. So in your piece, you argue that, throughout this history, the shift to austerity as opposed to these wage price guidelines, perhaps as a microcosm of a larger shift with more complex variables, was not only right wing or reactionary, but was actually not helpful for combating price increases. You even say that this austerity exacerbated the inflationary pressures in a complicated way with this change in price management policy. So could you explain how those dynamics work themselves out?

Andrew Elrod: Yeah, I mean, one fact that we all have to acknowledge is that there are centers of concentrated power in many markets. Not every market, but there are companies, and many writers argue all companies do this, who set their prices after making certain decisions about the preferred rate of return they want, the target profits, the expected volume of sales, all things that that may or may not happen, and that prices are then administered after the fact. So you end up selling and making as much as the market will take at whatever price you set, but you’re setting the price. That analytic distinction in business management is something that many models of price determination do not take into account. They assume that everyone is always receiving a price, that businesses will always be adjusting their prices in real time, but many large companies post their prices at the beginning of the year, and then they post them again when they change them next year. So that’s the starting point for thinking about it.

Now, what’s going on in the 1960s is an intense battle between organized labor and the core industries, including construction. Construction is a little different in that each city will have its big construction firms. One big trend in the business history of the 1970s is the growth of these national construction companies. There is a battle between organized labor, which these unions had been built up maybe a generation before in the Depression, during World War II, and had gone through maybe four or five contract cycles during the 1950s. By now they have a seasoned leadership who know what collective bargaining is and they understand what the real purchasing power of the wages they win are. You have this union leadership now confronting a corporate sector that can raise prices on its own, because of the growth financed by the Vietnam War. So you have an inflationary environment in which companies are raising prices because they can and because unions are then raising wages and forcing up costs.

This is what had been known as a wage-price spiral. In the 1940s, there was a lot of writing about how we arrest the wage-price spiral and how we interrupt the wage-price spiral. And people still use that language, but by the end of the 1960s, that’s what the guidelines were intended to do. If you say the guideline is a 3% increase, then you can’t bargain for a 7% wage increase, because that’s outside of the guidelines. Between 1960 and 1966, the biggest unions of organized labor all adhered to the guidelines out of a sort of political loyalty to the reform project of the Kennedy administration and the Great Society. There had been a sort of political coalition. But by the end of the 1960s, once you do get 3-4% inflation, the guidelines don’t work on labor, for one, and they had never really worked effectively on business, beginning in 1966-67.

So Nixon gets into office in 1969 having campaigned on repealing the guidelines. And that’s a situation where things really decisively change, because during 1969 and 1970, you take the guidelines off and the inflation that had been around 4% in 1968 goes up to 5-6% by 1970. So what we think of today as stagflation is really something that comes into consciousness, or sort of crystallizes, for journalists in 1969-1970. Now, there’s two other parts to this that you should understand, which relate to conventional macroeconomics, or fiscal monetary expansion and contraction. In 1966, once the guidelines broke down, the Johnson administration moves towards fiscal contraction. Historians don’t write about this. The characterization most people get of the Johnson administration, the Vietnam War, certainly something you would hear in an undergraduate lecture, is that, well, the problem with the inflation of the 1960s is that the Johnson administration didn’t raise taxes. That is like an historiographic truth at this point. And it’s wrong. It’s completely wrong.

In November of 1966, Congress repeals a 10% investment credit that was a de facto corporation tax increase. In 1967, things slowed down. Inflation slows down. There is a mini recession. Arthur Okun, one of the members of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, wrote a book about the Johnson period of political economy and prosperity in which he says 1967 was a “mini recession.” So in that situation, with the guidelines, maybe not everyone is following them, but you have a sort of general contraction, and then the guidelines are an instrument for the government to try to slow things down. And it was viciously fought. That’s the other thing you have to understand. 1967 is the year of the Detroit riot. 1967 is the year of the Newark riot. All of the cities which had been perpetually underfunded are now facing even tighter purse strings from Washington. So you get a precursor of what Nixon actually does in 1967 in the mini recession. But the difference is that, between 1967 and 1969, Nixon lets off the guidelines.

There was a huge explosion in 1969 of wage and price increases because businesses are confronting smaller markets. From a businessman’s perspective, well, you can recoup lost sales volume with higher prices. That makes sense. And from a union’s perspective, it’s survival, because now you’re living in inflation. So the real consumption power of organized workers is being eroded by inflation. So you have to keep money wages going up. That 1969 moment, I think, is really under-appreciated in the economic history of the period, which is usually narrated as, well, the Vietnam War spending kicked off, Johnson didn’t raise taxes, inflation began, and then it lasted until 1979. When, in fact, the story is a lot more nuanced than that. Nixon campaigns, not only on repealing the guidelines, because businessmen hate the guidelines, businessmen see it as a hidden project of price control, which, maybe it was. Nixon campaigns on repealing them as well as on shrinking government spending, or on the excesses of the welfare state, and famously, public universities, but in all sorts of other ways as well. There’s an interesting moment where you see the Republican Party business consensus actually consider expansions to a welfare state.

But anyway, Nixon’s response when he gets into office in 1969 was to cut government spending. His advisors are Herbert Stein, whose book, The Fiscal Revolution, had just come out. He was celebrated as the preeminent expert on fiscal policy and whose own career kind of helped to crystallize the idea of such a thing as fiscal policy as a distinct area of expertise. They advise to cut government spending. So Nixon arrives in 1969. There is the tax increase leftover from the Johnson administration, which they extend. They don’t continue the kind of ambitious social policy expansions of the Johnson administration, and understandably, because that’s what we think of as modern Republican Party ideas, which are being formed at this moment. In addition to fiscal contraction, they get rid of the guidelines. Then, the result is that inflation intensifies. And inflation intensifies as unemployment starts growing. So by the summer of 1970, the unemployment rate is way up and the Republicans lose big time in the midterm elections. And that sort of sets up the avalanching spiral of corruption that is revealed in Watergate.

But it all stems from this summer and fall of 1970 moment, where the administration realizes, “Oh, if we pursue the Orthodox anti-inflation policy here of reducing government spending, raising interest rates, and maybe even raising taxes,” and often it’s like consumption taxes, like raising a sales tax on refrigerators or something, “but if we do all of that, we’re gonna lose the election. Not only are we going to lose the election, but we’re going to intensify the social conflict that has been erupting since the end of the Johnson administration.” 1970 is the sort of height of the anti-Vietnam movement. There’s the National Guard killings at Kent State and the student uprising in Santa Barbara, so there’s a real national chaos in 1970, which austerity only exacerbates. Then, the rest of the next four years you can kind of see emerge out of this problem, which the ruling class solutions are incapable of solving. So Nixon has to sort of improvise.

Maximilian Seijo: I want to hold up here because I think this is really, really important. There are a few theoretical insights that maybe can be pulled from this tale that you’ve told here, the story of this history, as it relates to economic causality. Then, I want to push slightly into The Volcker Shocks and talk about the oil supply shocks as well, because that’s a central part of the narrative. But I think for our listeners, it’s important to say here, that the wage-price spiral, which for any listeners who’ve done an undergrad in economics, such as me, you hear all about this all the time. This is the problem of the last 50 years of macro policy. And it is the problem because of the things that you laid out, Andrew. What’s interesting about your history here is that it inserts price management through guidelines and through price controls, in maybe a larger sense, causally, in a way that almost comes before the chaos of the wage-price spiral.

So the foreclosure of price management, as a policy tool, is what sets the stage for the evacuation of the essential politics, that is, the politics of this situation. So it becomes a purely economic dynamic in the wake, or in the vacuum of, that political evacuation. I wanted to say that because I think that’s a fundamentally crucial thing for us to carry to today in this conversation for talking about the inflation of our moment. And in doing so, I want to push you back into the history. People talk about The Volcker Shock all the time. And, of course, the oil supply and the OPEC embargoes are rich in our consciousness when we’re thinking about this era. What effects did these things have on this wage-price environment?

Andrew Elrod: I think the sort of philosophical distinction between economics and politics that you’re drawing our attention to here is indispensable for understanding what happens during the Nixon administration. And maybe one way of putting it is that the politics of price control had been very clear before Nixon. The federal government had imposed price controls in moments of emergency to protect working class incomes. It was the condition for the successful mobilization of World War II to keep people working in those war factories. You had to have affordable food and you had to have affordable rent. There was a dramatic expansion of rent control during World War II, and similarly, during the Korean War. It was that legacy that motivated the Kennedy experiments in voluntary price control.

But, at the same time, the Washington, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York axis came to accept certain perspectives of, frankly, corporate managers. So you end up with a voluntary system. The politics of intervening in price decisions, what otherwise would be private price decisions out of a question of political and civil rights, were protecting working class incomes. There’s a real class politics to it. You make a good point in saying, once price controls were abandoned, politics were evacuated from economic management. But there’s a moment in the history, I would say, that we’re not acknowledging, which is the politics of the Nixon price controls, which when imposed, the Democratic Congress sort of goads Nixon into authorizing this two years in a row. 

Then, finally, Nixon does it when he sets up the Cost of Living Council, which is the supervising body under the Secretary of the Treasury for administering the wage and price controls and the mandatory legal price ceilings. He does it in a way that is much more permissive to profit increases than to wage increases. So the politics of the Nixon price controls reverse the class dynamic in the price control apparatus. It becomes an instrument of the ruling class. If you read the radical economists writing about the Nixon price controls, they’re all very explicit about this point. This is a program designed to further immiserate the working class, to pad corporate profits, and to reestablish the commanding position of American corporations in the global economy. They have a real conspiratorial critique and it’s not wrong.

But that’s the view and it’s bolstered by the record of, famously, Arnold Weber, who had been one of the members of the Pay Board. I think he was the commissioner of the Pay Board, which is the wage setting body of the price control program. He told the newspapers, “The goal here is to zap labor. That’s what we’re doing here. We have to get these organized labor unions that are fighting back against inflation across the economy. We have to zap labor.” So that’s where the politics of price control are reversed. And I truly do think that that experience for boomers taught boomers a lesson. It’s dressed up today in all of these formal economic arguments about why price controls don’t work. But I do think there’s a deeper cultural and political memory of the fact that the last time we used price controls it was to hurt the working class. It was an instrument in the class war from above.

So people don’t trust the federal government. And, of course, this is all exacerbated by the fact that during the price control regime, the community to reelect the President is taking all these illegal campaign bribes from the Fortune 500 companies and using them to break into the Democratic Party offices in Watergate and steal Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatric files, and the plethora of underhanded campaign strategies that became known as “rat fucking.” That’s happening under the price control regime. So this is setting up the popular perceptions, or whatever you want to call it, the American public’s understanding of what goes on under federal power. Your question was about the oil price shocks and The Volcker Shock later in the decade, but I think to understand what’s going on after October 1973 when the Yom Kippur War begins in Palestine and OPEC decides to quadruple the price of oil as a protest, you have to understand what happens from there forward. You have to begin to unpack all of the baggage that had been built up to that moment.

Maximilian Seijo: So this context, I think, is really important. And one of the things I took away from your piece was that the oil shocks, while, as you said, quadrupled the price of oil overnight, these underlying dynamics are often obscured in the memory by that shock of the price at the pump–that you can look up and see going up so rapidly. And not necessarily to get too lost in the weeds, but I wanted to hear you talk about that dynamic, because that’s certainly what I took away from your piece.

Andrew Elrod: This is another important point, I think, that needs to be made in economic history, or in places in economic history where real revision needs to happen. Like the 1967 mini recession that is never taught. The inflation of the Nixon administration begins before the controls. And the pressure on food prices and oil prices begins before the oil shock. This is crucial, because the history is really mistold when it’s explained as, “Oh, the American people knew how to run the American economy.” The experts were in charge, and then there was this unforeseeable, external event that really threw a wrench in the machine. But it’s not true. There had been all sorts of problems in the two years before the oil shock, which, in some ways, allowed us to better weather the oil shock. And one example of this is energy. The price of petroleum, raw crude petroleum out of the ground, and then the refinery price, the price of gasoline, those are all controlled. And that system of controls is the customer of the oil price increase that comes later. As bad as it was, the domestic price of oil didn’t quadruple in 1974. Now, there’s a lot to say about all of that.

Maxximilian Seijo: Yeah, I think we can leave the listeners a bit wanting on some of that. I think that’s a really fascinating point, and actually very much reverses the conventional wisdom that we always hear, which is, of course, like you said, that an external effect threw a wrench in our well functioning–maybe there was some pressure building up–machine.

Andrew Elrod: Before you ask again, there are two points about the pre-OPEC controlled period, I think, to flesh out the story. Raw agricultural commodities, like bushels of corn and wheat, were left outside of the Nixon controls. Since the Great Depression, one of the big things the New Deal does is it brings agriculture completely under federal management. So every year the US Department of Agriculture–really twice a year, because you have multiple planting periods–through the 50s and 60s, determined the preferred planned acreage in the allotment that each farm company–or farmer, there are still some family farms–would plant. The annual supply of raw agricultural commodities was the policy variable they were manipulating. It was a completely planned system.

And in 1972, the high period of Nixon control, even though it’s an instrument against the unions, it did stabilize the economy. Nixon wins reelection in a huge landslide in 1972. During that period, the State Department under Henry Kissinger pivots to détente with China and USSR. Part of the global strategy for people like Henry Kissinger is to restore diplomatic ties with the Soviets and China. And part of that is the grain deal. So we have these huge shipments of like 10-20% of the US agricultural output being sent abroad. As this was becoming known to the price commission, the Cost of Living Council, they became very concerned about the supply of wheat and corn in 1972.

And if you read the record, they publish books with retrospectives with the Brookings Institution, but also just in the newspaper record. They go to the White House and say, “You have to expand plantings, you have to expand supply, if you’re going to ship all of this food to other countries. You have to expand supply at home, otherwise, food prices are going to go up.” So the price of food at the processor and the retail level is controlled, but the price of raw agricultural commodities is not. And, as you know, the simplest economic model would show you the price goes up, or demand exceeds the planned supply. So I think that’s a planning error that should be acknowledged. Now, the second point is about oil.

The record of the oil industry during the Nixon administration is often used as an example of the failure of controls, because prices were controlled in August 1971. There was a freeze, and then they moved into a controls program at the end 1971 into 1972. That’s when the shortages begin. You have gas lines before OPEC. For both the economist and the businessman, his argument is that companies won’t produce at a loss if you control their prices. That it’s too close to cost. There’s no incentive to produce. Nobody’s gonna produce at a loss. That is something that happened in the petroleum industry. But today, there’s a second lesson we can learn from this, because it was seen as a huge failure to have gasoline and petroleum production decline in the 1970s. But today, that wouldn’t be seen as such a terrible thing. In fact, today, the problem of how to reduce petroleum extraction is like a huge problem. There are whole institutes devoted to this, but we have an example of when we actually did it.

Maxximilian Seijo: Credit history really can be cruel sometimes. As we’re sort of coming more to the end of this, there’s something I wanted to ask you about, which is something perhaps more present in my discipline, which is critical humanities. From the more art side and a theoretical approach, there is this narrative around the Marxist analytic of labor and capital as this historical antagonism. Normally, how the story of this era that you’re describing gets told is that this two sided antagonism is tempered through the New Deal, through the war, and then there’s the mid-century period, you could call it some sort of new social contract, where this antagonism is set aside, and we have this prosperity that’s dependent upon external accumulation. But this can’t last, right? There’s a falling rate of return on this social contract. Ultimately, steam builds up, and forgive the mixed metaphors, and the top pops off, and this antagonism comes into its natural state again as a purely economic antagonism.

What I’ve learned from you is that, there are aspects of this story that rhyme with the truth, and certainly the stakeholders, whether they’re regional or corporate, are fighting other stakeholders in what we might call the working class or the unions. This is certainly happening. There are certainly conflicts there. But to me, what your story does is it really nuances and brings this ambivalence around the politics of conflict and antagonism to the fore and perhaps shows these levers of mediation that structure these dynamics. So it’s not that, as you say, the 1970s happens, then there is a pop, and then we’re in this natural state of conflict and it spirals out of control. Those dynamics are in some sense constitutive of things that happen in the world. But there are also political decisions and intellectual debates that really structure the way these conflicts play themselves out. I guess that’s less a question and more of a statement, but I would be curious to hear what you have to say about those not absolutely distinct, but still different stories for narrating this era.

Andrew Elrod: Well, I think the notion of the era of consensus is something that has to be understood in the context of an intensely pressurized organized conflict. There’s a very important article on the 1959 steel strike. In the steel industry, the White House gets involved every time. So three historians, Gabriel Winant, Kristoffer Smemo, and Samir Sonti wrote this great article, critical historical study, about the 1959 steel strike in which they make the larger historiographic intervention that the era of consensus can only be understood as a moment of stalemate and deadlock in a highly organized conflict that had been bequeathed by the experience of the Depression and the organization of the working class that accompanied it. So, as someone who’s influenced by their work, I think the larger roadmap you laid out about interpreting the history of capitalism in the 20th century is useful, but it can be even more useful if we understand the conditions that created the so-called stability, and the political divisions that existed then, which would grow to lead to what is everywhere described as the unraveling, the shattering, or the end of the consensus. You can see it all in embryo, to mix my own metaphors, in the 1950s. You can see it there already.

As a final example of this, with the fiscal contraction that the LBJ administration pursues in 1967, the Vietnam war is going on so it’s not that total government spending is falling, but they want to take spending out of the civilian economy. This is coming at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. So the whole question of what are we going to do about the Black ghetto in the cities, that’s a situation in which you have the left wing of the Democratic Party saying openly, if you want to take money out of the economy, you have to raise taxes on wealthy people. You have to raise corporation taxes. Part of the reason that the tax increase that takes so long to come is this political division about the composition of government spending and who it’s going to go to. You have many high wage white union workers who, in this period, do turn to the right, frankly, out of the racist perception that there’s something unfair going on with the government budget. That’s a really good example of where the detailed institutional history lens helps with the broader conceptual distinction between conflict and consensus, where the organized conflict that produces so-called consensus is beginning to disorganize, and opportunities open for both the ruling class and workers, or the left and the right, or however you want to frame it, but opportunities do open in those periods as well.

Maxximilian Seijo: I think, then, for the last question I want to ask, to this consensus and to these actors who today are arguing in favor of austerity as a solution to the inflation that we’ve seen over the last year, or since the dynamics of the COVID pandemic have started playing out, what would you say to them, in short? And I can even make it a particular person. What would you say to Jason Furman who is arguing that we need a certain type of reduction of demand and that’s the solution?

Andrew Elrod: What are you doing? I can’t imagine ever having an opportunity to talk to that person, but I would say what are you doing? Why is it so important to use your professional expertise and the weight of all of your credentials in this way? Is it more about your profession? Are you truly acting as a good faith historical actor? That’s probably too provocative, I wouldn’t say that. But I think that the class politics of the government budget need to be understood as something more than an abstract full employment level of demand, and that the private sector has really failed to give Americans, people living in the United States, an adequate, basic standard. There are growing tent cities in every city. There’s a generation of people burdened with student debt. People fear the healthcare system–the place that’s supposed to keep you alive. So questions about the government budget should also be considered with this in mind. And if you’re being guided by macroeconomics, that’s a handy instrument to avoid these real questions.

Maxximilian Seijo: I appreciate both the psychoanalytically tinged answer and the straightforward, historically-minded answer. I think they’re both important and two aspects of what we’re contesting today, and where we definitely share a lot of political grounds. So I just wanted to say, Andrew, thanks so much for coming on the show. I really enjoyed this conversation and hope to talk more again soon.

Andrew Elrod: My pleasure. Let’s be in touch.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Maxximilian Seijo (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Superstructure 30 – Is Inflation Real? (ft. Mitch Green @drmitchpdx)

Cohosts Will Beaman, Natalie Smith and Maxximilian Seijo are joined by Mitch Green (@drmitchpdx) to discuss the problems with “inflation” as a catch-all term for price changes. A heterodox economist by training who studied with the late Fred Lee, Mitch takes a disaggregated view of prices that opens up price-setting as a publicly allocated administrative power with no necessary relationship to profits or sound finance.

Link to our Patreon: www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

On ‘Thin Air’: Money, Metaphoricity & Metatheatre (Essay)

By Rob Hawkes

Last year, I gave a talk on literature, money, and trust in George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) which the MotL Editorial Collective kindly shared as a podcast. Gissing’s novel tells the story of a group of writers struggling to survive in the harsh literary marketplace of the 1880s, one in which artistic merit seems to count for very little and authors who wish to achieve success must regard literature as a trade. The two characters who most clearly embody the plight of the artist who cannot ‘supply the market’, Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen, both die in poverty by the end of the book and, significantly, both recite the same lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as they approach death: ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.’ This is not simply a coincidence; Biffen is present at the moment of Readon’s death and he later recalls his friend’s last words as he reaches the end of his own life. However, I find the appearance of these lines in this text especially intriguing because they point towards a set of pressing issues in our present-day debates surrounding money.

This is the longer speech from The Tempest that the lines recited by Reardon and Biffen are taken from:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

At this point in the play, the sorcerer Prospero has called a halt to a ‘masque’ which he has conjured to celebrate his daughter Miranda’s engagement to Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples. As Prospero explains to Ferdinand during the performance, its cast are: ‘Spirits, which by mine art / I have from their confines call’d to enact / My present fancies’. One of many instances of a play-within-a-play in Elizabethan drama, this scene in The Tempest exemplifies the thoroughgoing ‘metatheatricality’ of Shakespeare’s works. That is to say that Shakespeare’s plays frequently contain moments of self-reflexive awareness of their own theatricality and, by extension – as in the famous ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech from As You Like It – of the theatricality of life beyond the theatre. Furthermore, as William Sherman notes in the Literary Encyclopedia, ‘Our revels now are ended’ is a speech: ‘which many critics have been tempted to read as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the stage’ occurring as it does in one of the ‘late plays’. As it happens, this speech is also the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the ‘transferred and figurative’ use of the word ‘thin’, to mean: ‘Wanting body or substance; unsubstantial; intangible. Also in to vanish (melt, etc.) into thin air: to disappear completely from sight or existence (formerly only of spirits). More rarely to come (etc.) out of thin air.’ As Money on the Left readers and listeners will know, ‘thin air’ is a much-repeated phrase in conversations surrounding money, and especially in discussions of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). In Declarations of Dependence, for example, Scott Ferguson celebrates the ‘resolutely public capacity to generate money out of thin air‘ that MMT makes manifest.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the topic of money creation to widespread public attention – perhaps as never before – as a result of the vast increases in government spending that were necessary to protect lives and livelihoods around the world and, within this broad discussion, the notion of ‘thin air’ has continued to feature prominently. In April 2020, for instance, still in the early months of the pandemic, an article in the New York Timessought to explain ‘How the Government Pulls Coronavirus Relief Money Out of Thin Air’ as follows:

“The United States has responded to the economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus with the biggest relief package in its history: $2 trillion. It essentially replaces a few months of American economic activity with a flood of government money […]. And where is all that cash coming from? Mostly out of thin air.”

The language used here is fascinating in a number of ways. First, the idea that the US government ‘pulls’ money ‘out of thin air’ connotes the pulling of rabbits from hats, while the ‘flood’ of government money evoked next supports the image of money as a liquid that flows (or sometimes sloshes) around the economy. However, this notion of liquid money sits awkwardly alongside the idea of money being ‘pulled’ from somewhere (or perhaps nowhere) – might money in a liquid form be imagined more plausibly as needing to be scooped or pumped than pulled? Having evoked the idea of a flood of money, however, the article goes on to refer to ‘cash’, suggesting that the $2 trillion ‘package’ of coronavirus relief took the rather more solid form of coins and banknotes (which might be better imagined as a stack or a pile than a flood). Finally, it is intriguing to note that the covid relief money is described as coming ‘mostly’ from thin air – which presumably means that some of it was already lying around somewhere – although the exact proportions remain mysterious. This analysis of the article’s phrasing may seem facetious, but (perhaps unsurprisingly as I am a literature scholar) it is my contention here that words matter. Furthermore, I assert that the difficulty that can frequently be observed in any attempt to put money into words – as in the above example and, more broadly, in the mixed metaphors and confused figurations that abound in public discourse surrounding money – is extraordinarily telling.

In a 2020 interview with the Financial Times, Stephanie Kelton asserts that: ‘we don’t have a debt problem, we don’t have a deficit problem […] We have a language problem.’ Kelton, furthermore, is not the only MMT economist to underline the importance of language and especially of metaphor in the way that money is imagined and discussed. In ‘Framing Modern Monetary Theory’ (2017), Louisa Connors and Bill Mitchell ‘provide a conceptual basis for understanding how the language we use constrains our thinking’ and ‘examine some of the key metaphors used to reinforce the flawed message of orthodox economics’. These approaches tend to present the ‘language problem’ identified by Kelton as something to be overcome in the pursuit of more effective ways of explaining how modern economies work. By contrast, I want to suggest that money is hard – perhaps even impossible – to put into words for a reason and that this is an aspect of money that warrants further exploration and understanding rather than circumnavigation or avoidance. Indeed, it may be that money is necessarily ungraspable, both literally and figuratively.

It is particularly interesting to note that, unlike the image of the ‘magic money tree’, which has repeatedly been evoked in recent years to ridicule those who support increases in public spending, the idea of money coming ‘out of thin air’ has been used both to champion and to poke fun at the MMT approach, despite its equally magical connotations. In a recent review of The Deficit Myth for Forbes, for example, Nathan Lewis caricatures Kelton’s argument as follows: ‘as long as there are unused productive resources in the economy (basically, unemployment), the government can print money out of thin air, spend it, and everything is okey-dokey.’ Lewis’s accusation in this piece is one of naivety, as the phrasing ‘everything is okey-dokey’ underlines. Nevertheless, his characterisation of Kelton’s argument – that ‘the government can print money out of thin air’ – is both intriguing and baffling. If the process of creating of money ‘out of thin air’ involves printing, then it is very hard to imagine how this works. Does air get fed into one end of the printer, where blank paper would usually go? I suppose this at least explains why the air has to be thin (gathered at high altitude, perhaps?) – thick air would no doubt clog up the printer. On the other side of the argument, in another piece written in the early stages of the pandemic response, Thomas Fazi deploys the idea of ‘thin air’ in support of MMT:

“The coronavirus crisis has now revealed the austerity logic to be an utter sham: as advocates of modern monetary theory (MMT) have been saying for years, states that issue their own currency and issue debt in their own currency […] can never ‘run out of money’, nor can they become insolvent because, unlike households or firms, they can literally create money out of thin air.”

In the light of the origin (or, in other words, the coining) of the phrase ‘thin air’ in The Tempest, Fazi’s assertion that governments literally create money out of thin air is a curious one. As the OED highlights, the phrase relies on the figurative use of the word ‘thin’ and much of its impact, I would suggest, derives from its metaphoricity. As the image (or non-image) of thin air going through a printer more readily than thick air was intended to emphasise, the word ‘thin’ in the phrase ‘thin air’ is not a reference to its thickness as such. In the OED’s terms, it means ‘unsubstantial’ or ‘intangible’ and thus the idea of something substantial appearing out of unsubstantial air suggests the involvement of a sorcerer such as Prospero.

Given that, as Kelton observes in The Deficit Myth, ‘money is no object’, I would argue that it makes little sense to describe money as being ‘printed’, ‘literally created’, or even ‘pulled’ out of thin air, because all of these formulations represent the production of money as a physical process. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that the link between Shakespeare/Prospero and ‘thin air’, via Gissing, remains significant. After all, while the spirits that perform Prospero’s ‘masque’ both come from and vanish into ‘thin air’, there is no need to imagine that they achieve substantiality in the interim. As I noted above, the ‘Our revels now are ended’ speech has often been regarded as a moment of metatheatrical commentary. Interpreted in this way, plays and, by extension, other works of literature also come out of thin air (and it is remarkable how little time most of us spend worrying that we are going to run out of plays, novels, or poems). As the literary theorist and scholar Derek Attridge puts it: ‘A literary work is not an object or a thesis; literature happens’. This is one of the reasons, as Attridge also explains, ‘that all attempts since the Renaissance to determine the difference between “literary” and “non-literary” language have failed’ and yet, as he goes on to assert, ‘this is a necessary failure, one by which literature as a cultural practice has been continuously constituted.’ In my wider research, I pursue connections between literature, money, and trust and argue that rethinking this trio of terms and the dynamic relationships between them can shed important new light on each concept. I do so not to suggest that literature and money are the same, but to affirm that literature and money can be thought of as sharing the generative potential to emerge from thin air, a potential that frequently defies articulation. Perhaps, then, the difficulty of putting money into words discussed above is also necessary, because money is no object; money happens.

Introduction to Theory: Karl Marx’s Value, Price and Profit (New transcript!)

In this third installment of our Introduction to Theory series, Maxximilian Seijo deepens Money on the Left’s analysis of Karl Marx’s critique of political economy. Specifically, Maxx investigates Marx’s 1865 speech and posthumously published book Value, Price and Profit

This episode, drawn from Maxx’s pedagogy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, interrogates the relationship between Marx’s labour theory of value and the capitalist mode of production. Through close attention to Marx’s theory of price, Maxx teases out Marx’s classical formulations and critically distinguishes them from the Money on the Left Editorial Collective’s heterodox economic foundations.

Transcript: Mike Lewis & Scott Ferguson

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Transcript

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to “Introduction to Theory” from the Money on the Left Editorial Collective. This is Maximillian Seijo, coming to you with another episode that touches on the works of Karl Marx. Just a little background of why I am going to discuss his book Value, Price and Profit today with you. It just so happens that I am teaching Marx at the beginning of this winter quarter at University of California, Santa Barbara. I’ve had my head buried in some of his works once again, some new works that I haven’t read before. And I thought what a great opportunity to take listeners back into the world of Karl Marx from the Money on the Left perspective and explicate some of the assumptions, ideas, really, the schema, the model that Marx is trying to draw together here in his analysis of value, price and profit. 

Just a little bit of history about this book. For starters, it was prepared in 1865, initially as an address. It’s a transcript of a lecture series he delivered to the First International Working Men’s Association. And it coincides with the preparations for Capital, Volume 1. You will probably notice when I quote some things here that it sounds a little bit like the Capital version of Marx. And, you know, he’s headlong in economic analysis, specifically, in the English tradition at this point. There’s a reason why he tries to pin down his concepts and explain them here in the way that he does, and we’ll get into that. One other thing, though, I want to say before I actually get into what Marx is trying to communicate here and define through his analysis of pricing and commodity and labor value, is that the title in German is actually Lohn, Preis und Profit. Lohn doesn’t exactly mean “value.” Lohn means “wage.” Sometimes this book translates lohn as that, but I think there’s something productive about this slippage between lohn and value. Because ultimately, wage is a, let’s just say, it can’t be trusted as a determinative factor for what the value of labor is. It only plays a part in the value of labor. You’ll see what I mean when we start to go through some of the concepts. 

I am not going to talk about the whole book in detail. To do so might be a bit unwieldy for this podcast. I am going to talk about Section 6 through Section 13. This is a large swath of the book. The reason why I’m going to do that is Section 6 starts with “value” and “labor” and really begins with his location of value, grounding his schema for analyzing prices. Another thing to say as a lead up to this analysis is that, in the book, Marx is attempting to refute the theoretical basis for a Ricardian socialism. So, we are talking about David Ricardo and his acolyte, John Weston. There’s a lot of technical reasons why, and it relates to what Marx ultimately discusses with regards to rising prices and the effect of trade unions on prices in general and the general rate of profit. That is not particularly the area that I will want to focus on in this podcast because I think we need to really hone in on what Marx means by value, if we are then to understand what he ultimately thinks about money, and prices and then a theory of change, 

With all that said, we can dive in. For starters, I want to ask this question that Marx asks at the beginning of Chapter 6 of Value, Price and Profit, which is: “What is the value of a commodity? How is it determined?” I think we all know what Marx means by a commodity here: A commodity is a product that is subject to the market forces of exchange. It is not just a product that is for individual use. Marx makes a distinction between labor conducted to create something for use and labor conducted to create something for exchange. 

So, what is the value of a commodity and how do we determine it? This is very important. Marx takes this question in a lot of ways, but I think the very simple answer is that the value of a commodity, and I will read here, it remains always the same. Whether expressed in silk, gold or any other form, the value of the commodity must be something distinct from, and independent of, these different rates of exchange. What he means is that we don’t look to its outward expression to identify the value of the commodity, to what you’re comparing it. In fact, there is no comparison. What we need is something universal. Not some artificial universal equivalent, according to Marx, but something truly universal. Something truly reducible. He even equates this to an algebraic function. We reduce the area of any triangle to an expression quite different from its visible form. So there’s an algebraic reduction. We cannot identify value simply through its expression. We must be able to reduce all commodities to an expression common to all.

This is where Marx is throwing out ideas that the value of a commodity is based on its interaction in a market and what the market produces as its value. He says no, absolutely not. Rather, the value of a commodity must have a “common social substance.” And “what is the common social substance of all commodities?” Marx asks. “It is labor. To produce a commodity a certain amount of labour must be bestowed upon it, or worked up in it. And I say not only labour, but social labor. A man who produces an article for his own immediate use, to consume it himself, creates a product, but not a commodity. As a self-sustaining producer he has nothing to do with society.” This is where Marx right away answers his question about how to determine the value of a commodity. And what determines the value of a commodity, he says, is labor. This is Marx’s labor theory of value. It is the ground, the social substance upon which his political economy rests. This is tremendously important, because his analysis of wages and prices and ultimately capitalism, writ large, is dependent upon this social substance. It’s dependent upon this analysis, this grounding. 

Where does he go from here, if we say that labor, sensuous labor, is the ground of value, for any exchangeable commodity? “If we consider commodities as values,” Marx writes, “we consider them exclusively under the single aspect of realized, fixed, or, if you like, crystallized social labor.” This is where Marx brings up the theme of the crystal, which some of you might know, if you’ve read parts of Capital. Value, the “crystal of social labor.” Money often takes the form, for Marx, of this crystal, of this prism that refracts all labor value through a glistening image. 

So, one thing I want to focus on in this description of what gives a commodity value, for Marx, is that it is fixed. It doesn’t move. It doesn’t vary. Now, the amount of labor that one might bestow onto a commodity, the power of it, how productive or efficient it is, that might vary. But if I weave silk, the value of that silk is grounded and fixed in my labor, no matter what happens after to the silk, who puts it on or pays for it. Marx move from there to essentially say that, and I can quote here, “The relative values of commodities are, therefore, determined by the respective quantities or amounts of labor, worked up, realized, fixed in them. The correlative quantities of commodities which can be produced in the same time of labor are equal.” 

There we have it: It’s a fixed labor theory of value. Why is that important? I’m trying to run through this almost circular articulation here over and over in different ways in order to communicate it, but it is important ultimately, because capital as a coordinated enterprise of coordinating production, it ultimately does not add value to the production process. It merely exploits it. This is crucial because Marx’s theory and criticism of the capitalist mode of production rests on the notion of capital as siphoning surplus value from labor. I’m going to come back around at the end of this discussion to critique what Marx is describing here. But I wanted to note this before we keep moving through: The coordinating capacity of production does not all ultimately rest and fall on this dynamic movement. Sure, it can increase labor power through innovation, but value is fixed in the commodity through the labor endowed onto it. 

With this notion of fixed value as baseline, I want to pull back a little bit and think about where Marx is deriving a lot of his analyses here. I mentioned at the outset that Marx is intervening in a space of Ricardian economics. Ricardo is, of course, a backbone of the classical story of economics and trade, or “comparative advantage” as it is called. In my undergrad economics classes, I learned about Ricardo. In classes on international trade, one learns to use his model to determine the “efficiency gains” of relations of trade across borders, the “double coincidence of wants” problem, and how trade fixes it and how tariffs are “bad.”

You learn all of these things in neoclassical economics. Marx is critical of this at some level, but he is also completely enmeshed in this world. One of the fun examples of this implicatedness is that, after Marx explicates this initial answer to the question  of the commodity’s value and what determines it, labor, he cites Benjamin Franklin. This is Benjamin Franklin of the American “Founding Fathers” lore. In particular, Marx cites the essay, “A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency,” in order to affirm Franklin. It doesn’t mean he’s not also critiquing Franklin in other places, but that, essentially, Franklin hit upon the true nature of value as the crystallization of equal amounts of average labor. As Marx puts it: “In thus determining the relative values of gold and corn, do we refer in any way whatever to the wages of the agricultural labourer and the miner?” Marx answers no. The nature of value lies not in a wage, not in a money-price paid for labor. 

We’ll come back to this because Marx explicitly critiques the monetary naming of these prices later on. But no, we look to the labor value, not the money value and not the wage value. This is Marx. He references Franklin here to do a sort of double move of affirmation and critique, but I do find it kind of hilarious that he cites Franklin, and there’s two other citations that I’m going to get to later that also fit into this. But this is not necessarily a part of the story that we’re used to being told about Marx, as the radical leftists, as someone who positively cites Benjamin Franklin. Yet there is this interesting relationship between what we might call Liberal political economy and Marx. This is an argument that we at Money on the Left put forward: This is a problem ultimately, for the left, because Marx is indebted, embedded, working in this Liberal political economic tradition. 

So, Marx doesn’t look to wages. But wages are important. The reason why is that wages, even though they don’t reflect the value of the commodity, they cannot exceed the value of the commodity. Marx says of workers, “Their wages can, of course, not exceed, not be more than the values of the commodities they produced, but they can be less in every possible degree.” What does he mean by this? What he’s saying is, if the value of the labor of the produced commodity is, let’s say, $10, the wages for that cannot be $11. Because fundamentally, this would be a completely bankrupt enterprise. The capitalist firm would go out of business paying its workers more than the value of the labor that totally goes into producing it. However, the wages can be a lot less. And this is where we start to see Marx’s theory of surplus value come into the fore. 

What does this claim about wages not exceeding commodity values mean? It means that you can pay workers less than they’re worth, less than the value of their labor. People being underpaid, and this is what Marx is railing against, right? He’s railing against people being paid less than the value of their work. There are a lot of assumptions here about what the value of a commodity is, what pricing means, etc. But in the end, this is what Marx is driving at. He does not like that workers are not paid for the value of their labor. And we can all agree with that. We don’t have to agree with all Marx’s assumptions. But we can all agree with that. So, the difference between what workers are paid, which can’t be more than the value of the commodity, and the value of the commodity is where he starts to define surplus value that is extracted and exploited by capitalists from workers, and ultimately, where he starts to get his idea of profit. 

First, however, we’re going to come back to this theme of fixed value. As Marx explains,  “To determine the values of commodities by the relative quantities of labor fixed in them, is, therefore, a thing quite different from the tautological method of determining the values of commodities by the value of labour, or by wages.” This is him driving home this point: It’s a tautology to try to use wages as the determinant factor for understanding the value of the commodity, because the value of labor is necessarily less than the value of the commodity, because of the surplus value extraction going on. So the wages are going to be less than the value of the commodity, they have to be for the enterprise to continue moving and running. This is the engine of capitalism: You need profit, right? This is the primary energy of the structure, and you need surplus value, and you need exploitation, right? This is a very dialectical point about the necessity of exploitation in this sort of generative antagonism of class, which doesn’t mean that I agree, but that is what Marx believes. It’s a very Hegelian point. It’s a model of Hegelian, zero-sum dialectic. It’s worth summing this up in a sense before moving on to what Marx means by prices. 

So, then, from “value” Marx wants to relegate price to an ontologically invalid status—as an “expression,” not as the “essence” of value. What he says is that price taken by itself is nothing but the “monetary expression” of value. To say that something is $10, it’s just to say, the price is nothing but a passive monetary expression of the social substance of labor that went into the production of that commodity. Marx underscores the variability of this monetary expression. “The values of all commodities of this country, for example, are expressed in gold prices, while on the continent they are mainly expressed in silver prices.” Of course, by “this country,” he means the UK and by “on the continent,” he means continental Europe. We see here a commodity theory of money. The commodity money, qua price, expresses the labor value of the commodity. 

Notice there’s no mention of law, government, accounting, administration in any of this. There is no legal grounding of money. It is merely a natural function of the labor process and, ultimately, the exchange process that makes this monetary expression as price. It is a natural price established by barter. “It is in this way, in fact by barter,” Marx claims, “that you learn to express in gold and silver the values of all commodities, that is the respective quantities of labor bestowed upon them.” This crystal of labor in gold and silver through barter is Marx’s classical barter theory, which we’ve talked about a lot on Money on the Left. It is a part of his classical Liberal economic trajectory and his Liberal economic work. Marx expressly connects this classical barter theory to the equally classical notion of “natural price.” “Looking somewhat closer into the monetary expression of value, or what comes to the same, the conversion of value into price, you will find that it is a process by which you give to the values of all commodities an independent and homogeneous form, or by which you express them as quantities of equal social labor. So far as it is but the monetary expression of value, price has been called ‘natural price’ by Adam Smith, prix necessaire by the French physiocrats.” Notice here that Marx is nestling up with Adam Smith and the physiocrats in his understanding and analysis of prices, as a monetary expression, through a commodity of gold or silver, of labor value stored and bestowed immediately by the laborer upon the commodity. 

As we unpack this schema, there are a few things we can ask. What organizes production? I’m going to come back to this question later, but this is where we will want to introduce our MMT perspective. What comes before and mediates labor? And when it comes to monetary expression, the naming which Marx describes and we’ve talked about quite a bit on Money on the Left–including Natalie Smith and Will Beaman’s wonderful episode about monetary naming–who gets to decide what the prices are? 

There’s no room for such questions in Marx because there is a prix necessaire, a necessary price that is “natural.” And this is Smith here. This is the classical economics that we are taught today under a neoclassical guise in orthodox economics in the reactionary, right-wing, conservative economics school of thought that dominates the discipline of economics up and down the academic-to-policy strata. From “necessary price,” Marx turns to “market price.” What is the market price? “The market price,” according to Marx, “expresses only the average amount of social labour necessary, under the average conditions of production, to supply the market with a certain mass of a certain article.” The market price gets determined by supply and demand. That’s the average. It’s an equilibrium. 

One sees this classical model continue to develop in Marx’s theory. To tease this out, I’m going to quote at length from both Marx and Smith, who similarly insist that the market price is not ultimately stable. It moves. Marx writes, “The oscillations of market prices, rising now over, sinking now under the value or natural price, depend upon the fluctuations of supply and demand. The deviations of market prices from values are continual.” Thus, Marx’s model is a dynamic one that moves through time. Meanwhile, we find the same conception in Smith: “The natural price is the central price to which the prices of commodities are continually gravitating.” There’s that “gravity.” “Different accidents may sometimes keep them suspended a good deal above it, and sometimes force them down even somewhat below it. But whatever may be the obstacles which hinder them from settling in this center of repose and continuance, they are constantly tending towards it.” 

All roads lead towards equilibrium gravitationally. That is how pricing works when it is based on a labor theory of value. So, the labor value fluctuates. The natural price expresses that labor value and the market is constantly trying to identically locate that supply/demand equilibrium. It is an oscillation in a movement through time. This is how economics is taught in undergraduate orthodox courses, and it is very interesting to find it repurposed in Marx. Moving from there, we can see where profit comes from. Marx writes, “To explain, therefore, the general nature of profits, you must start from the theorem that, on an average, commodities are sold at their real values, and that profits are derived from selling them at their values, that is, in proportion to the quantity of labour realized in them.” So, we assume, on average, generally speaking, market equilibrium, that what you are paying for is the value of the commodity, that this is not administered, that there is not a markup of the value. You’re not overpaying, generally speaking, perhaps aside from a few really turbulent oscillations that soon get corrected by the market. 

We can sense, here, a theme: this Ricardian foundation of market correction. John Maynard Keynes comes along later and undermines the logic of market correction. In fact, Zach Carter’s book on Keynes is great for rejecting this and implicating Marxism in this Ricardian foundation since, you know, it all comes back to the labor theory of value. This classical foundation assumes that the general nature of profits are derived from the value of commodities as a fixed substance of labor value. 

Upon this foundation, Marx develops his arguments, less significant in my view, about how the values of a commodity can change over time and that the power of labor can change. You can spend less time making something, right? You have greater expertise, or you have the help of a loom, or whatever it is. But one thing I want to say about this is that Marx quotes from Thomas Hobbes, and then says, “Proceeding from this basis, we shall be able to determine the value of labor as that of all other commodities.” This is not actually that important, I think, to the argument of this chapter in this book, but I just find it funny that we’ve gone from Franklin to Smith to Hobbes, as if we couldn’t get more foundationally Liberal and Enlightenment in this economic structure. 

Where this becomes extremely problematic is in Marx’s conception of the division of labor, because it predicates “labor power” upon a self-subsistent individualism. That is to say, labor power is essentially individual, for Marx. “The labouring power of a man exists only in his living individuality,” Marx writes. Labor power changes individually–in an individual relationship to a commodity–but that is only in what he calls an “original union” between man and his instruments of labor. This is a very quintessential Marx. We start from the union of an unalienated man laboring in nature, which then gets divided into surplus value. The value of his production ultimately gets sucked away, divided through the division of labor, and mediated by a capitalist who siphons his individuality from him. He takes it, he’s a parasite, right? This is what Marx believes. And it’s premised on this structural analysis of labor value and of value in general. 

What this means is that, in the final analysis, one cannot overcome alienation through money. You can’t get back to equality through a wage system because it would be a fractured equality, because man’s individual labor power has been fractured by wages, which do not pay him for the value of his labor. The capitalist mode of production could not sustain paying him that, according to Marx, since that would reduce any surplus value or profit to zero. This would destroy the system, which is ultimately what Marx thinks will happen. And this is what Marx’s interest in the falling rate of profit is all about. 

So, Chapter 8 is about the production of this surplus value. Once the laboring power of the man is divided, it leads to the production of the surplus value that siphons away that divided essence. In this chapter, Marx tells a story. I’ll just tell a different version of it, but it’s essentially the same. A man wakes up in 19th century England, he goes to the factory, and he works for 10 hours. The value of the commodities that he produces is 10 hours of his labor power. That is the maximum amount he could be paid for that commodity, because if he was paid, logically speaking, he can’t be paid more for that, because the money has to come from somewhere, right? 

This is a reified, natural commodity scarce expression of labor value. Logically, he could not possibly be paid more. Logically, the capitalists could not pay him the same amount, pay him justly for his labor power, because then the capitalist would have no money for himself. He pays him, let’s say, for four hours. Okay, those wages sustain him, he can perhaps feed himself, maybe provide him a little bit of shelter. And the capitalist takes six hours of his labor power. This six hours, in this case, construed as profit, which is not always what surplus value is construed as, is what the production of surplus value is, for Marx. It is that parasitic relationship where man’s individuality is sucked from him through capitalist appropriation and exploitation, and it is premised on a labor theory of value. 

“By repeating this same process daily,” Marx writes, “the capitalist will daily advance three shillings and daily pocket six shillings, one half of which will go to pay wages anew, and the other half of which will form surplus value, for which the capitalist pays no equivalent. It is this sort of exchange between capital and labour upon which capitalistic production, or the wages system, is founded, and which must constantly result in reproducing the working man as a working man, and the capitalist as a capitalist.” It reproduces the class structure. It’s the foundation of his analysis of the capitalist mode of production, and it’s premised on Ricardian foundations. “The rate of surplus value, all other circumstances remaining the same, will depend on the proportion between that part of the working day necessary to reproduce the value of the labouring power and the surplus time or surplus labour performed for the capitalist. It will, therefore, depend on the ratio in which the working day is prolonged over and above that extent, by working which the working man would only reproduce the value of his labouring power, or replace his wages.” 

The rate of surplus value, this is everything for Marx, right? It drives the dialectical relationship of class between labor and capital. Again, note that we are not talking about law, government, monetary politics. We’re not talking about any of that. We’re talking about a system of immediate relationships, mediated through a commodity as a commodity that is produced, or as a commodity as monetary expression. This is what turns capitalism on its path towards primitive accumulation, direct accumulation after accumulation in search of more profit, and then towards destruction in the falling rate of profit where there is a diminishing marginal rate of return, or a rate of expropriation. 

Connecting some of these dots, we can then talk about how this gets translated into price. Marx breaks this down in a way that is a little bit circular. He says, “The value or price of his laboring power necessarily appears to him as the price or value of his labor itself.” Strictly speaking, “value” and “price of labor” are senseless terms. What does he mean by this? Labor cannot have a price or a value. Labor is value. You can’t talk about the price of labor externally because that’s a circle, because the labor is the value of labor. It is self enclosed. Anything on top of that is something else. He breaks it down in this way: The price of labor, what one’s wages are, is only one part of the way in which the value of labor can be accounted for, and that is the paid part. So your wage is the paid part. And the other part is the unpaid part of your labor, which is the surplus value or profit of that labor. So, Marx really gets pissed about what he calls “this false appearance distinguish[ing] wage labor from other historical forms of labor.” 

And how does he make this distinction between waged and other historical forms of labor? Well, he talks about slavery, and this is kind of fucked up, actually. In breaking down the way labor value, in the production of commodity, is renumerated across historical moments, Marx uses the slave mode as an example and he says, “With the slave, on the contrary, even that part of his labour which is paid appears to be unpaid.” He’s paid nothing. So there is no payment, essentially. It all appears unpaid. The relations are then clear, right? “In order to work the slave must live, and one part of his working day goes to replace the value of his own maintenance. But since no bargain is struck between him and his master, and no acts of selling and buying are going on between the two parties, all his labor seems to be given away for nothing. Take, on the other hand, the peasant serf, such as he, I might say, until yesterday existed in the whole of East of Europe. This peasant worked, for example, three days for himself on his own field or the field allotted to him, and the three subsequent days he performed compulsory and gratuitous labour on the estate of his lord. Here, then, the paid and unpaid parts of labor were sensibly separated, separated in time and space.”  Wage labor doesn’t work this way according to Marx. 

There is the appearance that one is being paid for his labor. But really what that appearance covers up in the form of a wage and the price of labor is that there is this surplus that is generated as profit. So you can kind of see an almost nostalgic Marx for a slave mode. This is very Hegelian, which, at least with slavery, everyone knew that nothing was being paid. At least with the peasant serf, there was a spatial, a bodily division of the paid time you spent tending to the gardens of the lord, and the time you spent on your own petty property. Wage labor doesn’t work this way. There’s the appearance that tricks laborers into thinking they’re being paid, but they are not. 

This is another thing that I would say that is problematic in Marx. He, in a way, fetishizes the immediate domination of slavery and a feudal separation of labor. A feudal indemnity is more honest for him because ontologically there is only master and slave for Marx. He sees wages as a Liberal fantasy pretending to get out of the slavery that is “being itself.” This is a very Liberal, barbarous Hobbesian view of violence in relation to the world. It is reductive. And it is fetishizing slavery as a ground in the slave right or the “savage,” to use Rousseau’s term, as this ground of all existence that capitalism is trying to get us away from, but you know what it is just hiding it from us. 

What it creates, though, in this hiding, in this mystery of surplus value exploitation, in these parasites, is profit. This is the new thing. That defines capitalism. And I’m going to read here from one section that really drives home why Marx is so concerned about the wage as a mis-identification of labor value. In the capitalist mode “paid and unpaid portions of labor are inseparably mixed up with each other, and the nature of the whole transaction is completely masked by the intervention of a contract and the pay received at the end of the week. The gratuitous labour appears to be voluntarily given in the one instance, and to be compulsory in the other. That makes all the difference.” 

Thus Marx says, this is a labor contract, which again, is a contract, not in the legal sense of the way we would think of it as structured through labor law, but in a Kantian sense of a contract, which also Hegel takes up of an agreement between two people in nature, to decide to relate to one another. This contractual intervention is what Marx says masks the true nature of the domination that is at work in the capitalist mode of production. It mixes things up so that you can’t see with clarity, who is dominating who, absolutely. Who is universally dominating who: the capitalist and the wage worker? Upon this basis, Marx posits in Chapter 10 that profit is made by selling a commodity at its value. And this is where he rejects any notion of markup. The value of the commodity is, in part, the labor that is paid for and, in part, that is unpaid for. 

This is the breakdown of the exchange, wage and surplus value. “I repeat, therefore,” Marx writes, “that normal and average profits are made by selling commodities not above, but at their real values.” This is his Smithian mode. There’s a natural price and it’s not a problem of capitalists gouging customers or anything like that. No, it is built into the system of natural price. Exploitation and surplus value and profit is in the system. It’s not external to it. And you know, this is correct, in some sense. But it’s framed all wrong. We again, have no law, we have no money, we have no theory of coordinated production that is not voluntary, self-organized by capitalists by a system of natural progression. 

In Chapter 10, Marx starts to break down what surplus value is, and I’m not super concerned about this, except to say that this is where Marx theorizes rents and interest and other types of profit. So yes, there’s profit and surplus value is not reducible only to profit, it is also rent. In this sense, it is also interest. Think of ground rent or landlords or lending. This is where capitalists are divvying up between money lenders and all of these other capitalist parasitic forms. They’re divvying up the surplus value, and it’s up to them sort of how they want to do it. There’s all these dynamics that are very important. And there’s some part of this that I do want to read actually, which is Marx mentions that, and this is where we get to his thesis on rising wages. But the surplus value that is immediately extracted, fought by the capitalists from the labor, reverberates through this system. 

So it reverberates in different ways to capitalists and other types of industrial forms of profit to landlords, and ultimately, to tax gatherers. Because for Marx, if money is a commodity, government needs to collect it in order to spend it. And again, we have this problem of what MMT introduced into the system, which is that all money’s created first. Value is not a function of labor substance. Value is implicated in the coordination of labor, in social reproduction as a coordinating process, as a rights process, to use Sanjukta Paul’s metric for allocating the right to coordinate and produce labor. This is a legal process. Contract doesn’t come in at the end, in the capitalist mode, which is the Kantian story, which is the Hugo Grotius story, who is an important proto-Liberal political thinker and legal thinker. No, it’s central to the allocation of coordination that comes before any form of labor production. 

Essentially, Marx’s whole story of rising prices, and the zero-sum dynamic of the change in prices and the change of money prices, is predicated upon this zero-sum material grounding of value in labor. 

Here, finally, is where we get to money’s problematic status in Marx’s theory of the political change. To tease this out, I want to read from Chapter 13, which concerns the main attempts at raising wages or resisting their fall–these progressive and left demands that say “no!,” we don’t want wages to fall and we want them to rise. You know, Marx is fully on board with this in principle. And this is, of course, good. I support this too. For Marx, however, such demands are ultimately futile on account of the analytical structure he has erected.

Here’s how Marx figures it. He writes: “We have seen that the value of the laboring power, or in more popular parlance, the value of labour, is determined by the value of necessaries.” This is a reference to the French physiocrats. The prix necessaire or the quantity of labor required to produce them. Labor power, the amount of average labor that requires to produce the commodity. “If, then, in a given country the value of the daily average necessaries of the laborer represented six hours of labour expressed in three shillings, the laborer would have to work six hours daily to produce an equivalent for this daily maintenance.” But if the cost of shillings changes, then okay, something has changed here, some price has changed, right? And for Marx, this is very different than the price of labor changing. Marx calls this the “change in money price,” because money has a value, which is related to the commodity, and the production, and the labor that goes into the creation of the money commodity, you know, mining. So the change in the value of gold, as a money price, will change the correspondence between the value of labor and the price of labor, but it doesn’t actually change the value of labor. And what he writes is that, in this process in which there is a change in money prices, “nothing would have changed except the money names of those values. To say that in such a case the workman ought not to insist upon a proportionate rise of wages, is to say that he must be content to be paid with names, instead of with things [emphases added].” 

At bottom, what he’s talking about here is inflation. But I want to parse this names and things problem because, for Marx, this is the crux of his ontology of money, his notion that money is just the name. Pricing is just a name for a thing, for a dynamic that totally outstrips the process of labor and production. It’s a “mere” expression. Hegel says this, too, about money. Money, according to Hegel, is a universal expression of the value of a commodity, which is ultimately the value of labor that is endowed into the commodity. This is classical economics for you. This is Liberal money. It’s an ex post expression. It’s not active, it’s not productive. Therefore, when we publicly spend and create money, it does nothing. It’s inflationary. And what Marx is saying, in a sense, is workers should accept that it’s inflationary and ask for rising wages, but in the end justice is impossible until money is abolished. 

Now, I agree that workers should demand rising wages in line with the rising cost of living. But Marx’s approach is not an economic analysis that acknowledges the productive aspect of money, because money is just the name. And if you follow Money on the Left and of course, Naty and Will’s episode on naming, you’ll know that naming is everything. What we name things is how we value them. We name them as valuable. And that naming, monetary and legal, is the driving force by which we get the labor and create these things. 

Marx says “No, we want to be paid in things, not names.” But this is a nominalist understanding that is very modern as well as a reductive theory of law and money. And MMT, as a legal theory of money, totally shatters it. Which is not to say that I don’t think that Marx wanted good things, he wanted the workers to have good things. Of course he did. He wants workers to be able to sustain themselves and flourish. This is what Marxists want. This is what they say, and my friends who are Marxist say. And I want that, too! But I will insist that we have to come back to that grounding analysis here. 

What is the ground? Why are we looking at labor in a vacuum of individuality? Individuality is such a myth. It may seem bizarre to claim that Marx grounds his whole theory of capitalist mode of production in individual labor, but he says it himself. And he even warns us! He warns us about the problems of premises and conclusions. Because he says, at the very end of Chapter 13, which is where I’m going to end with you today, that when you proceed from a false premise, then you arrive at false conclusions. And Karl Marx does this himself with his individual labor power premise, and not the coordinated dependent production process of collectivity as his ground. So his theory of value leads to the false conclusion that money is an expression and that we must change things solely within the immanent process of labor creation, and not with money, not with naming. He explicitly devalues the politics of naming. 
Tis is ultimately what Money on the Left means. It’s a left political practice, and policy of naming, and valuing socially, through legal means, and legal in the most capacious sense through language. Valuing everyone and seeing no one as disposable as a product of what we name things, not just names as in Maxx, Will or Naty, but names as in price, and the administration of those prices and the production of our world through the administration of those prices. This is what we’re trying to pry open.

Response to People’s Policy Project on Alaska’s Oil Fund (Parody)

[This is a Guest Post from the Neoclassical Marxism Think Tank]

I apologize for the lateness of this post. I would have finished it sooner, but since taking my kids out of school to learn directly from market experiences, I’ve had to figure out ways to get them to leave me alone. This is a response to the People’s Policy Project on Alaska’s bold cuts to their public university system.

There was a time, probably hundreds of years ago, when public education was important. Before income became automated with the invention of passive income, humans had to be augmented with different kinds of knowledge in order to earn money and become truly free. Today, the average worker is far less productive than the average index fund in real terms. And by real terms, I mean dollars. In our technologically advanced society, the income of an “educated citizen” is equal to the income of an adult who receives the same amount in the form of an oil dividend.

From a material point of view, “public schools” are little more than unemployment insurance with a homework requirement.

So it’s a breath of fresh air to see that the brave government of Alaska, following Marx, cut the state’s public university budget by 40% to pay for their oil-powered Sovereign Wealth Fund. Alaskans have been liberated from workfare at a rate of $3,000/year. But the real benefits can’t be so easily measured. Beyond just $3,000/year, Alaska’s former students have gained something truly invaluable. Approximately $2,400 per year of extra consumption, by my intern’s calculations.

But as usual, some Leftists care more about gate-keeping their cushy think tank positions and virtue-signalling to tenured professors than actually winning. In a disgusting attempt to prop up the Workfare Industrial Complex, some “comrades” at the People’s Policy Project are saying that Alaska can close the university-sized hole in its budget with a move as simple as eliminating the $1.2 billion in deductible tax credits that will be lost to oil companies this year.

This is of course a ridiculous lie. Every oil fund thinker I know says dividend amounts will go down if they don’t get their tax credits. The idea that we can separate public spending from oil revenue when they’re sourced from the same place is a dangerous political fantasy.

And the truth is, Matt Bruenig knows better. I expect he’ll tell me as much when we meet this September to record podcasts in my wife’s spare room while our kids homeschool themselves. Matt knows that the yield for public education is low compared to other investment strategies the state could pursue with those tax revenues. He knows he is misleading citizen-shareholders across Alaska, but he doesn’t care. It’s worth it for him to keep Neoclassical Marxism from eating into his market share.

This is a plea for solidarity from leftists who share my dream of turning all public services into passive income streams. These flirtations with workfare are pure opportunism, and the average think tank reader is disgusted by them. Instead, we should be speaking the language of universalism. It doesn’t matter if a child is smart or dumb, productive or an objective waste of space. They shouldn’t be forced into a “school” to “learn things”. They should be at home, shopping online. Universalism means recognizing that all social problems can be solved with cash.

That’s what separates Socialists from other think tanks.

Medium: Femme – 2 – Radical Craft

Co-hosts Charlotte Tavan and Natalie Smith marinate in the complexity of the concept of femme:

inheritance politics,  fascist food, 
slaveholders, bell hooks, MMT & the household, oikos,
labor discipline, gender play, analogical fun
Real Housewives, dinner party politics
women in Stem, radical craft, reply guys

Introduction to Theory: Sigmund Freud

In this second installment of our Introduction to Theory series, Scott Ferguson presents an introduction to psychoanalytic theory by exploring key theoretical writings by Sigmund Freud: The Interpretation of Dreams (1899); Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905);& Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Drawn from a semester-long university course titled “Theory for Film & Media Studies,” the recorded lecture takes up three distinct texts in order explore continuities and divergences in Freud’s complex contributions to modern thought and society. Framed as an advanced introduction that is hardly exhaustive, Ferguson’s lecture strives to orient students to Freud’s contested historical significance and to model forms of situated close reading that resist reductionism.

Included for your convenience below is Freud’s diagram of the psychical apparatus that Ferguson references at various times throughout the lecture.

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Vulnerability Theory with Martha Fineman

Money on the Left discusses “vulnerability theory” with Martha Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University. Going beyond the politics of non-discrimination and formal equality that animate liberal politics and policies, Fineman underscores the human being’s embodied vulnerability throughout the life cycle in order to politicize, rather than pathologize prevailing structures of social dependence. Working primarily in the context of constitutional jurisprudence in The United States, Fineman argues for forms of government, economic institutions, and social organizations that variously take responsibility for the vulnerable subject’s ongoing resilience in a contingent world. In doing so, she controversially re-conceives universality through, rather than against difference, expanding the language of feminist and intersectional politics in capacious ways. In our conversation with Fineman, we plumb the depths of vulnerability theory and ponder its significance for left politics oriented toward public money and provisioning.

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Aditya Sudhakaran and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Martha Fineman, welcome to Money on the Left, it’s such a pleasure to have you speaking with us today.

Martha Fineman: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe to kick things off, you can tell our audience a little bit about yourself, maybe if you feel comfortable, some of your personal background, but certainly your professional and academic background.

Martha Fineman:  Well, I think my personal background really profoundly affects my professional status, in my professional position. For example, I am the first person in my family to graduate from high school, not college, but high school. I had my first child when I was 18. My second one, when I was 20, my first divorce at 21. I didn’t go to school until after that with two children, two small children. As a single mom, I continued my education largely through the help of government programs. 

I started an underground newspaper when I was a college student, which helped to support me through college, daycare center to help with taking care of my children and other people’s children. When I went to law school, I had not only my two original children, but my twins were five months old. So I had four children. This is not the typical background that you would have for a professor(!) A law professor, professor of anything, actually. And I really think it profoundly shaped the way that I view the world, and the way that I understand our dependence as individuals, on social institutions and supports. 

I didn’t take anything for granted and I think that that’s really reflected in the work that I do, which is very focused on institutional structures, and institutional relationships. I did my legal education at the University of Chicago on a full scholarship. They were wonderful, and began my teaching career at the University of Wisconsin. I was there for about 12 years, and then got a chaired position at Columbia University, went from there to Cornell, where I held the first chair in the country in feminist jurisprudence. And then from Cornell to Emory, where I’m Woodard professor, which is a kind of university professorship, focusing on legal theory.

William Saas: I wonder if you might say a little bit more about that, that biographical journey. At what point it became clear that you wanted to get into this sort of institutional jurisprudence. I mean, was law school the goal and then along the way, it formulated more clearly that institutional jurisprudence was with the direction you wanted it to go?

Martha Fineman: Well, I always had ambitions to change the world, right!? Which wasn’t very hospitable to the way that I was, into which I was born. I tried various things. As I mentioned, I started an underground newspaper called The Populace, interestingly enough. I started Baker Center, and was involved in all sorts of political things (this was) in Philadelphia. I went to Temple University as an undergraduate and I took a little stint working with skid row alcoholics as kind of a counselor. Did a variety of different things and I really, naively thought that lawyers had a whole lot of power. So I thought the way that lawyers operated like the social workers would come in, but it was the lawyers who actually could control the system, control the courts, and so forth. So that was one of the reasons I went to law school. 

When I went to law school, I always had in mind that I was more interested in the academic side of law than I was in the actual practice. Or at least, that became apparent the further I got into law and the more I saw that it really explained the structures of society and power in society in a way that I hadn’t envisioned outside of the legal context. So I always wanted to teach and I was really very fortunate that I had that opportunity. I clerked for a federal judge, but I really didn’t ever practice law. Instead, I went right into teaching. 

Scott Ferguson: We invited you to speak with us today about your legal theory, which addresses vulnerability as a key foundation of the human condition and the social manifestation of such vulnerability as dependents, which you primarily think through in the context of the United States. But before we move into some of your positive claims, I think It could be helpful to work through some of your critiques, your pretty profound critiques of mainstream, dominant, liberal, legal jurisprudence and discourse, to get a sense of the world into which you’re intervening.

Martha Fineman: Right, one of the things about the legal subject, what I call, “the legal subject,” but I want to point out that it is not only the legal subject, it is the theoretical subject. It’s the way that we imagine the everyday, ordinary being or person who’s at the center of our theory, be it legal theory, political theory, economic theory, anthropological theory, historiography. Whatever it is, we imagine a certain kind of human being at the center of our endeavors, our theoretical endeavors. So in thinking about this, for me, the typical way that we think about it is in terms of ‘autonomous,’ and here we’re talking about people having agency, autonomous, independent, self-sufficient individuals. Liberty seeking individuals, they want their freedom and their liberty. We see this very much today in the context of what’s going on with COVID, and people, you know, “this is my right!” 

So all these people or this subject is taken out of context. It stands outside of society, it stands outside of the institutions that inform our day to day lives. It is a radically individualized subject. And in addition to being radically individualized, what this means, ultimately, is that the state in which that individual is placed in the theory, is of necessity restrained. Is prohibited from interfering with the independence, interfering with the liberty of this idealized, (and I might add) totally incomprehensible and inappropriate legal subject to this autonomous, independent legal subject. So it’s that tradition, the theoretical tradition, not only in law, but particularly in disciplines – it’s the “rational man” of economics. 

Even in the context of critical theory, it’s the oppressed or victimized subject of, you know, it individualizes. It focuses on the individual and not on the social structures surrounding the individual. So that’s what vulnerability theory challenges, again, it’s this radical, individualized notion of the theoretical subject, and was to place that subject in the context that actually defines who that subject is and what that subject becomes. 

William Saas:  So before we leap into your claims about vulnerability and dependence, would you mind briefly sketching out how you came to these claims over the course of your career?

Martha Fineman: Well, I started out, and I still consider myself to be a feminist theorist. I was very concerned with gender, and with the exclusion of women from a lot of significant public and political areas of life. And I do want to say, it’s extremely important that we developed a discrimination model that argued against discrimination and exclusion and for inclusion. That was an essential, and necessary step in the evolution of a just society. So you can’t have people assigned to different kinds of areas and excluded from the main important political areas. 

What happened during the 20th century was, of course, that those formal exclusions, not only gender, but race, religion, all sorts of them were battered down, and the notion became anti discrimination and inclusion. So that if you look at law today, what we have actually is a formally equal system. I mean, everyone is supposed to be included, improper discrimination along these identity categories is impermissible. So that’s where I was, initially. And that was an important part of the early work that we all did. 

But it occurred to me in realizing this, and this happened in the context of the family, that the problems that we saw in the family were quite often not problems associated with gender or sex or women, but rather problems of the way that we looked at the family in the context of the larger social system. So the problem was not that caretakers or women as caretakers, were discriminated against (although that was one way to look at it.) But the larger problem was that caretaking itself was devalued by the governing system. It didn’t matter who did the caretaking. It was the practice, the notion of caretaking that was devalued. It wasn’t accommodated, there wasn’t a room made for it. We defined caretaking as a task of the family alone, the workplace was not asked to adjust to accommodate caretaking.

Rather than having institutional arrangements across the board to accommodate this vital and important social task, raising the next generation, what we did was confine it within the private institution of the family. And it seemed to me that it was saying, “Okay, well, hey, boys, you got to share the load equally and do the caretaking too.” Was not and did not solve the problem. The problem was not the individual relationship between husband and wife, mother and father. The problem was the relationship between the family as a social institution and other social institutions, particularly the state and the workplace.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah and it seems like that extends outward, right? From the family. So such that, for example, we can talk about a privatized health care industry. That model of privatized care is equally culpable of not addressing vulnerability in a systemic way.

Martha Fineman: It’s not only healthcare and it’s not only care, and this was another evolution in my thinking, moving from what I initially did was to articulate a theory of dependence or dependency that really focused on family and caretaking. And of course, there were a number of feminist theorists who looked at care work and care as the way to organize that. But the family is embliotic of larger social arrangements. 

In other words, the dependence that we see, not naturally recognized in the family, but for caretaking. We are all dependent on social institutions and relationships, and we move from this family into other areas of dependence, like the educational system, the employment system, the finance system, the healthcare system; We’re all dependent on the social arrangements and social organizations that define these systems for us. So this dependence is something that travels, what varies is the particular set of institutional arrangements. We are less dependent on the family as an institution as we age, but we are nonetheless dependent, equally dependent on other social institutions as they come into play. 

I just wanted to mention that one of the big realizations for me, also in terms of why I find discrimination analysis, not only inadequate, but in fact, problematic is the question of what do we gain if with a discrimination model? Where essentially the complaint is you’re excluding me, the remedy is to include me. So what do we gain from inclusion in an existing system that is unjust or corrupt? I mean, what has actually been gained from that? What we really need is not a personnel change or a personnel expansion, but rather a fundamental restructuring of the values and the purposes of the social institutions. That’s really what’s necessary. 

Also, one of the more recent realizations with vulnerability theory is that focusing on equality as the paramount consideration can also be very problematic. And again, back to the institution of the family. There are social relationships that are inherently and desirably, unequal relationships, the parent child relationship is one. So a discrimination model and equality based model doesn’t help us think about how we can justly organize these relationships of fundamental inequality. I also now think about other relationships that way, employers and employees in the context of work, we don’t ask and we don’t want employers and employees to perform the same functions. They are not equals, although we pretend they are, because we construct this fiction of the employment contract. Also, you have bargaining between equals which is all nonsense, most of the time. But rather, this isn’t again, it’s a reciprocal relationship of inequality and there should be unequal notions of responsibility. Doctor/patient is another one. Teacher/student, there’s all sorts of inherent inequality and unequal relationships that are just totally passed over in the dominant ways that we think about social justice currently. 

William Saas: The latter is especially relevant now as it’s the end of the semester and grades are coming to their relative equality or inequality of student and teacher comes into stark relief. I wanted to say that one of the things that I think we appreciate about your work, particularly is that emphasis on sort of, not stopping really at a step in critique. Continuing to move forward past the discriminatory discrimination model. To a more robust and encompassing critique of the system, and thinking through, developing, cultivating values that are more ethical and better, right, but that project is sort of ongoing. What we know I think, from our perspective, as humanities scholars who are interested in political economic theories and heterodox economics, and specifically modern monetary theory is that that’s a tremendous amount of work. That it doesn’t stop. 

On your reading, is it a matter of well– is it defensible to say that pragmatically, we have the discrimination model in place right now and we’re working with it, right? And we’re improving it incrementally. We don’t have time or resources to sort of pause and have this sort of conversation and the mass pedagogical moment that you’re calling for. Another way to rephrase it would be: How do we get to those questions? And then I think that one of the things I appreciate about watching your lectures and reading your work is that you are not afraid to teach and to pause and say, “This is how we’re thinking now, this is how we need to think.” So a lot of thoughts there. But how do we do it?, I guess, is the takeaway.

Martha Fineman: There’s a lot of things I want to put your question in the context of a lot of other things. So for example, I recently read and it struck me as absolutely true. If you change the way people think about things then you will also change their actions, although it’s hard to change actions if you don’t change how people think. And I think that this is a lesson that feminists should have learned and necessarily did not learn. When they took an idea, again, an abstract concept like equality, and sought to impose it on empirical circumstances where equality was not the model, in fact, the imposition of equality resulted in greater inequalities

And I think that with a discrimination approach where we are now, again, since we have won many of the battles, at least in a formal sense, discrimination is illegal. Discrimination is condemned, those are significant battles. We should recognize that that’s the case and welcome that. But where do we go from there? Again, what good is inclusion, if the institutions that we’re including ourselves in are in fact unjust, operate on jostling? So we have to think about how it is, I think the continuation of the discrimination model actually fractures the theoretical subject, the subject of concern in radical politics, progressive politics, whatever you want to call it. 

It fractures that subject in ways that allow those who are interested in maintaining the status quo, to turn us against each other, or to view the fragmented theoretical subject. Address their concerns, but not the concerns of all of the people, “the others.” “The others” who share that set of concerns but are excluded by the particular identity category. Whether it’s race, gender, religion, whatever, sexuality. Again, we fracture the possibilities, the solidarity that is possible; The bringing together as a collective, talking about social justice, justice for everyone, even though there’s a disparate impact. People are differently affected. We are all affected, in one way or another. I think that it’s maintaining that, what the discrimination model, in fact minimizes the past ability of real state action. The state becomes a standby to ensure, kind of an umpire making sure that all these disparate groups get to play fairly rather than taking an active role in ensuring a more just society for everyone

William Saas: Sort of like the neoliberal nightwatchman of equality!

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, yeah. Listening to you speak, I just keep coming back to Hillary Clinton’s last campaign for the presidency. One of her tropes that I hated so much, and I shouldn’t even pick on her because it’s just a standard trope. It’s not Hillary’s trope, but she was the candidate. She kept saying, “Everyone should have a chance to succeed. Right? I kept thinking, “No!! Everyone should be taken care of!” That’s different. That is such a different premise. We don’t want to give everyone a chance to succeed, but maybe they won’t. And, you know, we did what we could.We need institutions that do active ongoing caretaking and mediating along the way. 

I think we’ve teed up the background and the stakes pretty well. What I’d like to give you a chance to do is to get us into some of the weeds of how you’re thinking about vulnerability as constitutive of the subject. How this is related to what you call “dependency?” You also differentiate dependency in important and complex ways in your work and I just want to give you a chance to do some theorizing with us along these lines with these terms.

Martha Fineman: Well, first, vulnerability is a term that’s in common use. Usually, when people think about vulnerability, or the vulnerable, they’re thinking about people or individuals or groups who have been subjected to discrimination and exclusion or disadvantage, in some ways. So it has this negative kind of connotation. When I use the term vulnerability, I’m using it as a term of art. And I chose vulnerability carefully, because to me, there is no position.

I think we know this both empirically and intuitively, there is no position of invulnerability. None of us are totally invulnerable from outside forces or internal forces, that will change our position. 

So vulnerability, to me, is the susceptibility to change. 

Now, a vulnerability analysis is based on or it begins, and I talked about it this way, reasoning from the body. So that where we begin in our theoretical inquiry is not with some abstract concept, like autonomy, or equality, or dignity, on these abstract concepts, but rather with the reality, the empirical reality of our physical material body. And what does that mean? That is, in fact, the human condition, that body is vulnerable to change. By change, I mean, both positive and negative change, our bodies develop As infants we are totally helpless. But we develop, these are positive developments. There are also negative developments, developments that are caused by accidents and injury and environment, and so forth and so on. Negative changes within our bodies, illness etc. But both positive and negative changes. 

One of the things that we have to realize, and again, that factors into the concept of vulnerability, is that many of those changes, many of those forces that change are totally beyond both individual and collective control. That we, in fact, cannot control everything and that’s a really hard lesson for someone in the 21st century in an advanced democratic society to actually accept. But it’s true. Many of these are beyond – many of them can be anticipated and planned for, we can have, again, social policies. People age and guess what, we should have social policies that plan for that! People get sick, things like that we can actually do but we don’t. Because we tend to think of ourselves as invulnerable and the vulnerable individual is that “other,” who’s not us. Who we shouldn’t worry about because somehow they’re inferior or whatever. 

Vulnerability analysis begins by reasoning from the body, the realities of the body, it is an empirically based theory initially. Now there is a normative side to a vulnerability theory and this is extremely important. We have the physical, empirical realities of the body. The normative part is what does our realization about the body mean for the way that we should think about constituting a just society? How should we design our institutions? How should we proceed, given that we are vulnerable individuals? And again, here’s where the concept of dependence comes in. Because of the limitations of our body and the susceptibility to change. We are throughout our lives, always, constantly dependent on social institutions and relationships, the family, the workplace, the financial system, the healthcare system, the social welfare, you just go on and on. We are dependent on those institutions throughout our lives. How should those institutions, in fact, ‘designed’ given our vulnerability; How should they be structured so that they are in fact, just?

William Saas: What role do ecologies play before or alongside these institutions?

Martha Fineman: Yeah, I’ve had a couple of graduate students doing their Ph.D. dissertations on vulnerability theory and the environment or, vulnerability theory and animals. Again, one of the significant things about vulnerability theory, in contrast to both liberal theory and much of critical theory, is that the individual is really put in a social context, which includes the environment. It’s not only man made, excuse the term! A man made environment, but it’s also the natural environment. We are part, we are dependent upon all of these things. So we need the animals, the air, the ocean, everything. Angela Harris actually wrote an interesting piece using vulnerability theory, talking about the environment within and how these bacteria in our guts that totally our health is reliant on. So that, it displaces the individual, as the primary focus of our concern in our policy to look at the individual, again, within these contexts, and the context certainly would include the environment.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, and I keep hearing you grammatically, it’s interesting, you shift when you’re talking about liberal theory, you’re talking about the self of the subject, but then you often shift to our. That’s something that I think is worth noting and tracking as we’re trying to rethink our own use of language and grammar. 

So one of the aspects of your work, which you’ve already hinted at, but I want to highlight in a more focused way, is that you’re making a pretty radical claim to universality. Which I don’t know if we’re in the age of, postmodernism or anything like that anymore. But I would say that, throughout my lifetime, and my intellectual academic development, that was naughty, you know? One doesn’t appeal to universality, because that’s discriminatory, right? That’sa highly problematic move. Butyou take this on in a very different way. And you’ve had some critics of this move and I want to just give you an opportunity to spell it out and, how you’re responding to critics and, why this rethinking of universality so important?

Martha Fineman: Well, again, the universality is the body. And we all have physical bodies. Now there are differences, and in fact, those differences– Well, there’s two kinds of differences that we can think about. So the body is the fundamental reality, the body is the human condition, we are all born into bodies. And when we escape them, we die. Right?! There’s two kinds of differences that people are thinking about here and I think that a lot of the postmodern critique is concerned with the demographic differences, the differences that are at the center of a discrimination analysis Differences like age and sex and race and so forth, ability. 

Those are the demographic if you take a slice of society at any one time, you can look and categorize people according to all these demographic differences. Again, a vulnerability analysis says, “Fine, there is nothing wrong with attacking discrimination when it exists.” That’s a positive thing to do. It is not sufficient however, if we’re concerned about defining the appropriate relationship between the governing system and the individual. Then we have to look at the differences that arise in the body over time. So one of the strengths of a vulnerability analysis is that it takes a life course perspective, looking at the developmental, not the demographic, but the developmental differences that occur within every human body. (Actually, they occur in animals, but skip that one for now!) 

But the developmental differences, and again, the way that we move through social institutions and relationships, because of our developmental phases, and increased abilities, capabilities, or decreased abilities and capabilities over time. So that places it outside of the characteristics of the individual, to the functioning and structures of society. it’s a different kind of “different,” it’s a different kind of difference. I think that when the postmodernists would talk about ‘deconstruction’ and ‘non essentialism,’ what they were talking about was those demographic differences, but I don’t believe even they could deny the realities of the physical material developmental body.

Scott Ferguson: Do you appeal to specific theories of ontgenices, or developmental models? Are you working with more of an intuitive level with that analysis?

Martha Fineman: One of the things I love is when sociobiologists and people like that get a hold of me! Evolutionary anthropologie. I’m working through all these concepts trying to build this theory, and it’s always of interest to me when people of other disciplines and other areas come to me and say that it relates to the work that they are doing. I mean, I actually just did this piece criticizing human rights because vulnerability analysis is an alternative to both human rights and a social contract paradigm, both thinking about state responsibility. In thinking of human rights, there is a way in which rights, which are a highly individual concept, are argued as necessary for reproduction of society, which is a socio-biological…You have to have an altruistic approach or else society will die out if you don’t care about the collective. I listen to that and I find that of interest but what I want to do is to have a comprehensive integral theory that actually takes into account the factors that I think are important. I’m not interested in justfying murder, or rape. 

Wiliam Saas: I wonder if, does it seem like there might be something at play broadly in terms of this block to a discussion of universality or an acceptance of universality and indeed, an acceptance of vulnerability theory and all of its implications? Well we don’t like our bodies and we don’t like to think about them and we don’t want to contemplate the fact that we’re going to die. And I wonder what level you might have thought about that kind of discomfort with embodiment informing and shaping the difficulties you have encountered? 

Martha Fineman: That’s really true and you know, I’m not a psychologist but I do think there’s a lot to that. The notion of control also, that we like to feel that we’re in control. “I did everything I could.” “I did everything right.” “I don’t deserve this.” What happens to us in fact, is random, largely.  You can call it luck, whatever.  I do think that that’s very difficult for many people to think about. Which worries me actually, when I first started vulnerability theory I thought about 9/11 and Katrina. The things that expose to the average everyday person are inherent vulnerability. Things are external, that they can’t control. Not only they can’t control but their government can’t control, or doesn’t control, doesn’t respond appropriately. You can see how easily the failure to understand vulnerability and its universality, to be manipulated for nefarious political reasons. This same thing is true with dependence. I mean dependence, what is the right wing’s cry for any welfare proposals? “This dependency. This generation of dependency.” As though that is some sort of evil admiration when if in fact it’s totally normal and we all experience it. Again, I don’t think theory and academics do anyone any service by pretending that those things don’t exist and by not confronting them and trying to educate people! You know Education starts with one person at a time, one group at a time. And again, unless you change how people think about things, you’re not really going to change their actions or responses. 

Scott Ferguson: One podcast at a time!

Martha Fineman: I agree!

Scott Ferguson: So I want to shift our conversation a little bit. We’ve been talking about the state and the responsibility of the state, but I’d like to shine a sharper light on that. You make some quite radical claims about not just the state, what it is? What it isn’t? What it’s responsibilities are. But also about the constitution and the question of constitutional jurisprudence. Could you take us to a little tour of what is the State according to Martha Fineman? And how should we rethink, or maybe be rewriting, the Constitution.     

Martha Fineman: Well, the state is one mechanism of governance. What we call the State is a mechanism of governance. I think one of the other things that distinguishes vulnerability theory is that it recognizes not only the inevitability of governance systems, but the desirability of governance systems and to go further and say, the desirability of the State. We all live in, again back to society, and are living in a society, and are living in institutions and relationships. We all live with sets of rules that define our day to day existence. They define who’s in a family, who’s not. What the consequences of a family are. They define our employment relationship, what the relationship is between employer and employee. They define our banking system, our healthcare system, our insurance, whatever it is, there are sets of rules.  That defines our interaction, our day to day interaction with each other. So that’s one set of rules. 

There’s another set of rules that define the governing systems relationship to those who are governed. So that’s another kind of hierarchical relationship. So sets of relationships. Vulnerability theory deals with both of those sets of governing relationships, although it’s more concerned with the day to day relationships than the governing system, although it does address that. But it’s more concerned with the day to day relationships. So I think, for me I that there is more positive, radical, transformative potential in a governing system that we call the state, which is the democratic state, susceptible to challenge, susceptible to democratic process, which puts Incidentally, the responsibility on us as citizens, than there is for other governing systems. Because if it’s not the state, the Democratic state that’s acting, to define those rules, to define those relationships, to tell us what our day to day existence is going to constitute, it’s going to be something else. Multinational corporations, insurance companies, religion, there’s one. Or the proud boys, and they’re ak 57, or whatever the guns are. 

Someone is going to tell us the rules or someone who’s going to impose that. Society cannot function without those rules. Whether that’s a radical or a realistic way of actually thinking about governing systems, I’m not sure. I mean, it seems to me that, you know, again, it’s hard to think of the human being, an individual living outside of society, and society is constituted by sets of rules.

Scott Ferguson: That answers some of it. But I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit more about your understandings of let’s say, the responsibilities of the state, and maybe something about your thinking around this concept of resilience?

Martha Fineman: I say the resilience comes from the institutions in relationships. Resilience is nothing more than the resources that we get and by this I do not mean only economic or material resources. I also mean things like security, comfort, love, or the resilience of the resources that we have as human beings, to confront and ameliorate our vulnerability. To survive and thrive in the face of these unending changes. Some expected, others not, some within control, others not. It’s the resilience that gives us the ability to withstand and thrive in those contexts.

 Now, no one is born resilient. Resilience rather, is gained through our experiences within social institutions and relationships, so that our family instills in us a certain set or not, security ability, love, material resources, health care. These institutions provided, relying on other institutions like the family needs the healthcare system. The family needs the state. The family needs that employment system, so forth, and so on. So we have the symbiotically arranged set of social institutions, where resilience is built through these individual interactions in social institutions and relationships. 

So vulnerability theory and thinking about inequality really looks at the inequality in resilience, rather than the inequality in other forms of inequality. It’s really how can we transform our institutions, so as to provide greater resilience. I mean, resilience should be the end and the responsibility of and since those institutions again, institutions and relationships are controlled by the governing system by the state. It’s their responsibility, then to see that they in fact, operate in a just manner. Vulnerability theory would say that, in fact, our vulnerability is the reason that we constitute the state. It is the reason we constitute social relationships and institutions. This family arises because of our vulnerability. The community, the state, the international community arise because of our vulnerability and that is the justification for those institutions. We should always judge those institutions by how well they then respond to the vulnerability. That’s the basic fundamental reason for their existence. So how are they in fact responding to it?  

And the state, of course, as we know, refers responsibility to other institutions. This is what privatization is all about. But again, we should judge those institutions, by what function, what public function they’re supposed to be serving. So how well does the corporation in fact, generate a vital economy, prepare workers for the you know, for the future?  How well do these institutions function? Not for the purpose of their shareholders, for example, but for their social purpose in allowing them the privilege of all of these legal advantages that the corporate form has given their social role in reproducing society, in generating and distributing wealth in society, and resources in society. And we don’t judge them that way, we judge them by a totally different set of – and this would be a big vulnerability project. It’s again, dismantling these institutions in terms of the function they’re supposed to serve in reproducing society, and the functions that they’re actually serving? And how should law be reformed to reflect the former rather than the latter?

William Saas: This is a point of overlap that I think excites me, Scott and others in our community. Which is our sort of shared interest in perhaps not dismantling, but reconstructing, deconstructing, recovering institutions, and remaking them and channelizing their energies and sort of possibilities in specific ways that serve the public good, and the public purpose. So for us, and this is a long, might be a little bit of a long winded way to set up the question, we want to get your take on modern monetary theory. So for you, it seems like in a sense, the state can go 100 different ways. The best one is probably to be organized and through democracy and democratically and in a way that democracy is kind of an institutionalization of a vulnerability to change. Right? An immutability and a shiftability. Money, I think, for us, and what MMT is sort of made clear for us and coming at this from the humanities, critical theories perspective, seems to be remarkably similar. And is, I think, an institution that is frequently associated with the state, but also for us associated with political agency. 

Could you talk a little bit about how you do or do not see the kind of central observations of MMT, which are that money is not a scarce private resource, and that we can afford most of the nice social programs that we can imagine, right? It’s a matter of resources, not of scarce money, with the kind of claims and things that you’d be interested in accomplishing through your ideal state or a governance system that operates in accordance with vulnerability theory?

Martha Fineman:  Well, just a couple of things. One is that I don’t need to  state it out here as something that’s different and distinct.

Scott Ferguson:  Neither do we.

Martha Fineman: The state may have made the decision to privatize, or refer certain kinds of state functions to other organizations, like the financial system or whatever. But there’s no standing outside the state. The state is, in fact, inevitable. 

As far as money, I think it’s important to think of vulnerability theory, again, focusing on reasoning from the body. The body is pre-political, it’s pre-economic. The body is the body. The body is the body with its limitations, is a dependent, vulnerable independent entity. And it is the reason and the justification and the rationale and the occasion for the construction of all of these other social institutions including monetary policy. But nothing is inevitable in that regard. Money or financial arrangements are in a vulnerability analysis, only a small part of what constitutes resilience. Again, money is part of an institutional cluster of things. It’s one measure or mechanism for fulfilling state responsibility, but it can’t be considered alone. 

I think this is the problem that I have with things like political economy is that they focus on politics, and they focus on the economy, and they forget the rest of the world. And in fact, they forget the world that for most people on a day to day basis, are really relevant to their lives. Security, right? Valuation, accommodation, you know, the structural arrangements that they want, I suppose you could put a monetary value on them. But I think that it would lessen their significance actually, just like you can’t reduce everything, you can’t quantify everything.

And well, I know there are people that would disagree with that, but there are things that you can’t quantify that are qualitatively measurable things that we have to deal with. So money is a mechanism. And I think you’re absolutely right, that, you know, it’s a construct. All right, and it’s all you can play around with in all sorts of ways. But I would urge you not to focus only on the monetary aspects. But on rather, I mean, if you have universal daycare, and universal health care your monetary needs are lessened. I mean, there are things that are provided structurally, that actually have an impact on the way that you might think about the allocation of financial resources. I don’t know if that makes sense. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about because I’m doing a piece for law and political economy. And I’ve been thinking again, about the way that political economy narrows the focus on state responsibility. I mean now, to an important aspect of state responsibility, but it is only an aspect, it’s not the totality.

Scott Ferguson: This makes a lot of sense to us and actually as critical humanities scholars and podcasters and many other things, we are emphatic about theorizing, making sense of money from a nonreductivist point of view. So for us, money is always imbricated as an institution, in multiple institutions. And just as you’ve said, and I guess, for us, we have a similar critique, we share a critique, I think of a political economy and political economies predication of analysis on the individual. And for us, one of the ways that we articulate this through MMT, through modern monetary theory, is a critique of the so-called, “barter story,” that is supposed to originate money. 

The barter story as most of us know, starts with individuals, really an individual, which in a Lockean model has mix their labor with nature, so much that they have a surplus and in order for it to not to spoil, they decide to have some social relations from an autonomous point of view. And then though, it creates barter relationships, and from those barter relationships, there are various kinds of opportunity costs and problems that come along. Then we get a more formalized money system. Then, you know, years later a state comes along, puts its stamp on the coin and vows to protect private property, etc, etc. We all know that story. 

But what that story does is it makes money a question of individuality, right? And in such a reductive way, that pushes institutions, society and government to the outside. Even if they recognize that those institutions and government have a role to play, it’s always a kind of intervention. Right? And so for us, what we would say is, we want to theorize, thematize and critically explore and fight for a much more capacious understanding of money. One that is necessary for universal, free daycare. So if money is not being quantified and tallied up at the individual, private level for daycare, that’s great. But that also for us means that money is being spent, it’s being spent at the federal level. Right? So money’s gonna be somewhere. But the question is where in the vast, heterogeneous array of interdependent institutions, is it playing its role? So I don’t know if that makes some sense as a response to your comments. 

Martha Fineman: Yeah, it does. And I mean, I think it’s reflected in the current discussion now about the budget for the Defense Department, the defense budget versus “Build Back Better.” I mean it’s an allocation question, isn’t it? I mean, but investment in institutions, which is made with money, is more important, I think, in many ways than just tallying up the bank accounts of individuals at the end, which is how we tend to value individuals. I mean, it really is, it’s very perverse.

You might be interested in one of the projects we have, which is actually rethinking professional ethical relationships in the context of vulnerability theory. And I have this project, which is looking at law, business and medicine. And of course, law and medicine have become nothing more than businesses. Just thinking about how you could take away from a transactional analysis, the way that we think about ethics now is on a transactional basis, you know, what happens when “x does y?” And you know, all that, to actually thinking about an ethical responsibility in terms of the professions responsibility to the just reproduction of society to making sure that social justice is done with these transactions, realizing these transactions are not individual transactions, but transactions that actually express fundamental values that society has. So anyway, it sounds like we have a lot of things to work together on. And I’d love to see, I’d love it. If you send me some things you’ve written, that would be great.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, that’d be wonderful. Billy, do you have any closing thoughts?

William Saas:  I just wanted to say that it’s, of course, really great to talk with you and think through these things, and would love to move forward talking more, as Scott was recounting the, the Lockean story of the origins of money into an Aristotelian story to it goes on, always back, right? That it’s not the traders, or the producers that are vulnerable in that situation. It’s the commodities and things that they’re making that are vulnerable to decay and rot. It’s out of a reaction to the vulnerability of the commodities rather than themselves that they find it necessary to make coins, which are more permanent, right, and can withstand circulation and things like that. And so just vulnerabilities just completely.

Scott Ferguson: “Other.”

William Saas:  “Other,” yes. And where does it go?

Martha Fineman: There’s a great article that actually uses vulnerability theory to look at the vulnerability of corporate attorneys. Not a group that we normally think of, but they are! They’re totally vulnerable to, and again, this is related to the professionalism project. The demands of their clients, you know, the demand. I mean,they’re in a position where their options and their ethics are structured by these external forces. Anyway, yeah. So, it sounds like a lot of really exciting possibilities.

Scott Ferguson: Absolutely. Well, I think that’s a pretty great place to stop. Martha Fineman, thank you so much for coming on Money on the Left.

Martha Fineman:  Well, thank you for having me. I enjoyed this interview immensely. Thank you.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Aditya Sudhakaran (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Don’t Look Up MMT (Essay)

By Michael Brennan

Adam McKay and David Sirota’s new film Don’t Look Up is an exercise in what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism,” literalizing the provocation that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In the film, McKay and Sirota imagine the discovery of an approaching large comet that will destroy all life on Earth in six months and the futile attempts to convince the public to act to avert extinction. Leonardo DiCaprio describes the film as “an analogy of modern day culture and our inability to hear and listen to scientific truth,” particularly regarding climate change and COVID. Here, the media are positioned as the primary obstacle to an effective public response, the title Don’t Look Up referring to the tendency cultivated by neoliberal media to deny scientific truth (e.g. climate or COVID deniers). The film’s call to action is for the audience to reject this death drive by “just looking up:” to face the scientific truth of our crises directly in order to take action. 

The trouble with the film’s central critique is that it reinforces a problematic liberal theory of media as a private “marketplace of ideas” led by influencers. This prevents viewers from critically analyzing media as contestable public infrastructure. Sirota, an investigative journalist who worked as Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign speechwriter and surrogate, considers the film a “success” for dominating Twitter and Netflix trends and spreading awareness about the need for public action on climate change. But this alleged success is in tension with the liberal “Just Look Up” approach that the film shows to be ineffective. Proponents are assumed to be using media to drive people toward “climate action” whereas critics are reduced to symptoms of the media problem diagnosed in the film. This logic ends in a doom spiral. Having ourselves “looked up” at truth by watching the film, we are driven toward despair at our own lack of agency in the face of neoliberal media. We are led to accept capitalist realism’s fatalistic view of the impending end of the world. Media is wholly captured and alternatives are unimaginable.

This essay explores a way out of this trap by flipping McKay and Sirota’s critique on its head. The film’s disavowal of mediation, I suggest, is the imaginative barrier to saving the world from capitalism.

Doomsday Media

Don’t Look Up’s initial pacing is frenetic. Astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy discover the comet and straightaway send the data upstream to U.S. President Janie Orlean. This setup induces an immediate suspicion of media in the audience since the bureaucracy is reflexively against scientific facts that would disrupt neoliberalism’s automatic churning. The plot unfolds from this negative institutional premise, flattening media to the propaganda model proposed in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (1988). On this model, the dominant mass media system consists of financialized corporate conglomerates driven by advertising revenue and stock value appreciation. With austere budgets and management, journalists and analysts are structurally reliant on elite access and get institutional flak if they dissent. Similarly in the film, President Orlean and her Chief of Staff son Jason Orlean cover up the comet ahead of the midterms until they realize they can boost their polling by projecting nationalist strength. The talking heads of the primetime cable news show “The Daily Rip” disregard the doomsday message, preferring pop stars Riley Bina and DJ Chello’s relationship drama for its trending value in the information economy. When the corporate media does eventually become concerned with the comet, it is as an accessory in a profitable culture war between the “Just Look Up” liberals and “Don’t Look Up” comet deniers. 

Bash Cellular founder/CEO Peter Isherwell, an Elon Musk/Jeffrey Epstein-derived billionaire and President-whisperer, is the political system’s puppet master and the film’s personification of Capital. He is introduced at a Silicon Valley presentation of his new Artificial Intelligence (AI), BashLiif. This AI is designed to be “fully integrated into your every feeling and desire without needing to say one single word” in order to generate exact micro-targeted content. As part of the film’s anxious world-building, Isherwell is immediately associated with our own impending “metaverse,” the web3/cryptocurrency promise to “disintermediate” the Internet as a totally immersive digital space. His emphasis on direct feelings and the technology literally “touching” the user (personified in his implied pedophilia) is symptomatic of what Scott Ferguson identifies as an unconscious tendency of neoliberal aesthetics: to make the world “real” to the audience by compulsively reinforcing sensory immersion. While McKay and Sirota rightly draw out this frightening tendency, their approach—for the audience to “look up” at scientific truth to take action on climate change—still plays into such fantasies of immediacy and immersion. Overcoming this reduction of truth to sensuous immediacy requires deeper reflection about our philosophical priors than the film allows. In particular, we need to attend to the liberal understandings of media and politics that underlie the film.

Doomsday First, Media Second

Liberal political philosophy relies on the idea of a “state of nature,” where humans first encounter the world and each other at a sensuous and immediate level, before agreeing to enter into relations of social interdependence. Absolute freedom is inherent to this private human condition, with public governance emerging as a secondary phenomenon. This is analogous to the “barter myth” underpinning the liberal theory of money, where the direct exchange of commodities precedes money as a second-order medium. For a liberal theory of media, speech is also considered first as a pre-political practice of private individuals, before it is regulated by law as individuals become citizens. Media is thus naturalized as a “marketplace of ideas”—a private sphere of free individuals communicating with government intervention occurring after the fact. In the liberal frame, the individual or collective subject knows empirical truth through the immediacy of the senses; any social meaning or interpretation is considered superfluous “spin” to base reality. 

Each of these liberal premises rest on the same ahistorical flaw: sequencing individuals to be metaphysically prior to the public. Contrary to the liberal story, it is in truth impossible to give a full account of who we are and what we do without reference to the symbolic media that organize our circumstances in the first place. As Maxximilian Seijo argues, Christine Desan’s constitutional theory of money provides the basis for an alternative theory of media. Desan describes money as a “governance project” and a “mode for mobilizing resources,” an inescapable problem of social accounting that persists throughout history (for better and worse). Just as with money, communications are an inescapable governance project that shapes and names all that is caught in it. Understanding the nature of mediation—as the boundless site of public coordination—is key to opening the imaginative space for capacious public action. 

With this frame in mind, Don’t Look Up’s reductive decision framework comes into critical focus. Because media is presented as totally enclosed by capital, the theory of change is narrowed to a binary choice: to lean in or drop out. Dr. Mindy leans in to play the role of sexy scientist spokesman for the White House, a figure reminiscent of Carl Sagan teaching about the cosmos or Dr. Fauci soothing the public by personifying the aesthetics of a confident bureaucratic state. Despite disagreeing with the profit-seeking turn of the mission, his justification for taking up this role is to secure his inclusion in the decision-making room with the President. Dibiasky, meanwhile, at first leans in as the public critic. She gives voice to the film audience’s own frustration with the media, reinforcing our view of her as a protagonist. Once Isherwell’s plot to mine the comet is revealed, however, Dibiasky drops out and is disciplined by the police-state for stirring up dissent. When Dibiasky tells the crowd at the bar that “they are going to let it hit the planet to make a bunch of rich people even more disgustingly rich”—one of the film’s few moments that gestures towards sites of politics beyond the main characters—we cut to a spontaneous mob destroying private property. Emblematizing the film’s broader rejection of media, McKay and Sirota depict the trope of riots as violent outbursts by masses of individuals, located outside of a coherent theory of change, rather than as mediated collective tactics. Later, when Dr. Mindy tries to lobby Isherwell on the flaws of his plan to mine the comet for its resources, Isherwell shuts him down, articulating his view of himself as not a businessman but a God overseeing the techno-evolution of humankind. With no alternative, Dr. Mindy melts down on TV and drops out, leaving no one and nowhere left to make change.

Money as Media

Two seemingly incidental instances in which the film overtly thematizes money lay bare the impasses of its approach to media. The first comes at the beginning as Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy wait outside the Oval Office with Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe and General Themes to brief President Orlean about the comet. Themes asks the other three for cash to pay for the White House-provisioned snacks, only for them to discover later that the snacks were free. Dibiasky is continually perplexed by this absurd petty theft, eventually concluding the military official did it because “he gets off on the power.” At one level, this instance laments the supposedly selfish part of our nature that wants power for its own sake. Yet this scene also registers an intuitive disbelief that money could be reduced to such a petty end in-itself when sitting in the heart of American power, implying a yearning for a more convincing account.

The second instance occurs at the White House Cabinet meeting after the first attempt to nuke the comet is mysteriously aborted. Isherwell presents Bash Cellular’s internal research that the comet “contains almost $140 trillion worth of assets,” including a supposed $32 trillion of critical rare-Earth materials for Bash’s technologies. (This critique ironically ends up undermining itself by naturalizing an accelerationist resource war with China as an inherent impulse of personified capital.) Isherwell and President Orlean’s new proposal is to break the comet into small enough pieces to not be an existential threat but to allow it to still impact the Earth so the materials can be recovered for profit. According to Isherwell, this money will supposedly be used to end “poverty as we know it, social injustice, loss of biodiversity.” The plan gets its popular support for the supposed “job creation” it will provide in the perennially scarce US economy. Yet the public-private partnership ultimately ends in apocalyptic failure, with Bash’s explosive robots malfunctioning mid-mission, not sufficiently breaking apart the comet, and the world ending. “What do these trillions of dollars even matter if we are all going to die from the impact of this comet?” asks a flustered Dr. Mindy.

The protagonists’ perplexity at the micro and macro greed of Themes and Isherwell, respectively, indicates that Just Look Up desires an alternative to a cataclysmic profit motive that the film itself cannot envision. This is precisely what a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reading of the film provides. The film’s claim that the comet’s resources are worth $140 trillion implies economic value is intrinsic to an inert external source, which logically trickles down into the justification of “job creation.” But this is absurd on its face since money is not the second-order medium for a commodity’s inherent value. It is a public utility that names what is valuable in the first place.

President Orlean has the legal authority to direct the Treasury to create $140 trillion at any moment. Simply marking up the government’s bank account at the Federal Reserve, the disbursement would only go into the economy to finance spending that has been authorized by Congress. (Indeed, this is the point of recurring proposals to mint $1 trillion coins). The true political question is: What ought to be named as valuable in a public budget, which public money then accounts for and coordinates? Such operations are proven tacitly earlier in the film, when President Orlean mobilizes the seemingly unlimited capacity of the military to nuke the comet. Thus the film actually resolves the money question from the outset, despite stumbling back upon it for the tragic remainder of the film. In this way, Don’t Look Up proceeds like its protagonist Dr. Mindy, knowing intuitively to contest Isherwell’s claim that the comet is worth $140 trillion but lacking the language to destabilize the liberal premise of private money. 

Looking Up’s Contradiction

Strangely, the strategy that follows from the film’s contradictory liberal theory of media is explicitly shown to be ineffective late in the film. The comet approaches and becomes directly visible, rendering the threat no longer “abstract,” but rather an empirical fact. This leads to the viral “Just Look Up” trend, a last ditch effort to overcome comet denialism and mobilize the public to act. People had been initially reliant on media to communicate to them the relevant scientific information. The comet becoming visible, however, occasions an event of “disintermediation,” where people can instead rely on their senses to directly know reality. At President Orlean’s “Don’t Look Up” rally, this seemingly proves successful when the MAGA crowd turns on Orleans after looking up to see they were tricked.

In the end, however, temporary success gives way to disaster. True disintermediation is not possible. When one uses their senses to interpret the external world’s representations, including when viewing a comet with the naked eye, those inputs are still mediated as knowledge via language, culture, ecology, etc. They do not constitute a higher form of “direct” relationship to reality. This is the liberal theory’s contradiction. We see this again in “Just Look Up’s” plea for other countries to defy the US and launch their own comet interception mission. Such appeals still depend on the attention economy trending power of Riley Bina’s immersive pop music experience at “The For Real Last Concert To Save The World.” She calls on the audience to “listen to the goddamn qualified scientists” but offers no further strategy other than to continue passively participating in media. 

McKay and Sirota seem to acknowledge the Just Look Up strategy’s contradiction, since it ultimately ends in apocalypse. But the film intentionally makes the very same move, encouraging the audience to have a direct relationship with the scientific facts of climate change while itself still participating in media. Sirota consistently highlights the “success” of the film based on its trending power, while simultaneously calling outshitlibs” for lacking a coherent theory of change. Just as Dr. Mindy failed to destabilize Isherwell’s premise of private money, McKay and Sirota do not destabilize a liberal theory of media. Instead, they reinforce the assumed binary option to either lean in or drop out of the corrupt marketplace of ideas. This implicates everyone in the sin of participating in media, including the filmmakers as well as their critics. But whereas they participate knowingly and for the right cause, critics are interfering with the activist message to “look up” at the truth and take action, which functions as an effective bludgeon against supposedly “superfluous” and “distracting” posting detached from the “real world.” Thus Riley Bina’s concert functions as a synecdoche for the film as a whole: an absurd and ineffective spectacle that treats the audience as passive consumers of external media.

Affirming Public Media

What would a genuinely public media strategy look like? Media, properly understood, plays constitutive roles in organizing popular support for public action. The film gestures toward this with Dr. Mindy’s role as public intellectual. He is practicing a Carl Sagan-esque mode of media participation (implied directly in the first scene with his bobblehead on Dibiasky’s desk). He promotes a hotline (set up as a public-private partnership between FEMA and Bash Cellular) for people experiencing anxiety to discuss the comet with scientists “for peace of mind.” Yet the depth of Sagan’s style of popular engagement with schools, member organizations, research and academic institutions, etc., is not explored here. While promising, such solutions are insufficient for the task of shaping the world.

To begin to answer this question, a public media strategy can borrow frames from previous public actions. This is the basic approach of the Green New Deal (GND), which uses the familiar New Deal framing to open imaginative space for a similar policy regime today. The demand for a Third Reconstruction from Rev. William Barber II and the Poor People’s Campaign (itself drawing on the familiar narrative of Dr. King’s later organizing) returns to the public task of the incomplete Black Reconstruction following the Civil War to create new space to imagine its completion. 

But to be a fully public media strategy, we must go a step further by holistically designing the media of the programs themselves. Seijo gestures in this direction by drawing from the experience of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Here, Seijo critically assesses how the New Deal’s economic programs are shaped by and possess their own media texture:

“From its inception, the CCC was more than simply an employment or conservation programme. Rather, like much of the New Deal, the CCC was both a political and a communications project. From the political creation of the money needed to fund the programme, to the strategic placement of the laborers’ camps, to its architects’ rhetorical emphasis on the ‘wilderness’ or ‘frontier’ over the perceived artificiality of urban environments, to the robust media apparatus that bolstered the popularity of the programme – the CCC reveals the propagandistic nature of public policy development in the New Deal. It is for this reason that its intertextual web of informational activism was of such profound importance to its achievements.”

On Seijo’s analysis, the CCC was a holistic media project, an explicitly normative attempt to shape the material and aesthetic world, the success of which lives on today. GND advocates are currently pursuing a modern CCC as part of Congress’ pending Build Back Better Act, demonstrating the staying power of designing public jobs programs as media. Seijo goes on to outline the media lessons from the past for a GND today:

“With such a history in mind, the GND could foster broader support among the public at large, through both the material and aesthetic experience of its effects. For example, the GND must consider its public relations effort not simply as a campaign that aims to influence individuals in a so-called marketplace of ideas. Rather, the GND needs to incorporate its public media governance within the material manifestations of such projects – in signs, artwork, screen media content, localized and scaled public addresses, etc.” 

In contrast to Seijo, McKay and Sirota deny this imaginative space by relegating media to so-called “culture wars” and reducing said culture wars to superfluous media distractions. They fail to represent actually-existing contested public media spaces—workplaces, neighborhoods, universities, community meetings, protests, mutual aid, etc.—thus obscuring those strategic media terrains. What is more, crises such as climate change, the pandemic, nuclear war have more uneven time horizons than the binary “doomsdate” of the comet, allowing a pluralism of media strategies to develop and flourish. It is, of course, urgent that we act quickly since we also don’t have long.

There are ample opportunities for shaping public media in the response to the type of disasters allegorized by Don’t Look Up comet. These do not necessarily need to be government-run programs to be “public media” in the broader sense intended. But they should be nested within political struggles for re-orienting public money for public purposes, including full employment. For media to address such crises, however, we must first open up our ability to imagine new possibilities.